In my new council role at South Norfolk Council I am a district representative for Hethersett, Little Melton and Bawburgh.
But having served on Wymondham Town Council for two years and it being my home town I obviously still take a keen interest in decisions made for our residents and businesses by the new administration.
It is a huge responsibility to take on, and decisions come under a massive amount of scrutiny, quite rightly so.
Some of the projects the council undertakes are relatively small, but others have earmarked several hundred thousand pounds, and it is these that I feel deserve more public consultation.
The one I’m specifically talking about is the new cemetery.
The town is lucky enough not to need to buy land for this project as it was agreed as part of the William’s Park development that land would be set aside for a new cemetery, with the current cemetery only having an estimated two year’s left of available plots.
So what will it cost to transform a blank canvas into a burial ground? Well when I was first on the council we were talking about £300,000. In the two years I served it grew to £500,000 and now there are suggestions that it could cost in excess of £1million.
Where is this money coming from? The town has received large sums of CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) which is paid by developers of new housing. Much of this has been ‘earmarked’ for the new cemetery and I understand the pot currently stands at over £500,000.
Great, you might think, we are well on our way to creating this new cemetery.
But what about the other things Wymondham desperately needs?
There are plans in place to transform its open spaces, such as Browick Rec, Rothbury Park and Becketswell, all of which are really in need of upgrading to provide amenities for the residents and introduce better habitats for wildlife and more attractive recreation facilities. These alone would cost a minimum of £500,000.
There is the public realm improvement which was proposed by South Norfolk Council as a co-funded project to enhance the town centre, make it more attractive to visitors, boost business profitability and showcase the town’s heritage to bring in more footfall. The town needs to commit £250,000, with South Norfolk, and hopefully Norfolk County Council, making up the rest to create a £1m investment, or it won’t go ahead.
So you can see already that £500,000 (rising to £1m) for a cemetery that will provide burial space for the next 200 years causes a problem in funding other projects and improvements that are needed now for the people who live and work in Wymondham today.
What are the priorities here and can we have it all?
Looking at it from the outside my pragmatic side says to scale down the cemetery project – do we really need to have somewhere in the region of 200 years of burial plots available now? It means people who are not even born yet have a burial plot ready for them.
I’ve looked at what other councils are doing. Earlier this year Buckingham Town Council asked its residents what they wanted in a consultation as they were looking at borrowing £2.4 million for a new cemetery from the government’s Public Works Loan Board at a fixed rate to be repaid over 50 years. This would mean increasing the average council tax bill by £12 a year. The cemetery would serve the community for the next 160 years (1474 plots) together with allotments and a works depot, parking and landscaping.
But feedback has led to the council cutting right back on the project and reducing it down to just the essentials to open a working cemetery. This means 746 burial plots (80 years), 30 allotment plots, car parking and landscaping/tree planting. This will halve the original price, the loan repayments, and the precept could rise by just 47p a year. Quite a drop from £12. They have just gone back out to consultation.
But at Wymondham’s September town council meeting it was discussed that the cemetery partners CDS will be submitting a planning application AFTER WHICH the public could comment. Is this not the wrong way round? Should the public not be able to have a say so that they can help inform the design before it goes to planning?
I feel very much in the dark about the whole thing. I understand there is a ‘building’ as part of the plans but is this needed? Why can’t it be done in sections, providing perhaps 50 years of plots at a time, allowing the town to budget in much smaller increments for its expansion over the years?
Scaling back the cemetery will mean the town can have a better chance of getting its other much-needed projects done, while still meeting its obligation to provide a burial ground.
I don’t want to be hearing in a few year’s time people saying the town is dead, but they have a great cemetery (irony intended). Opportunities like the public realm investment will not come along every day and if the town misses out now it would be a disaster for an already struggling high street that is in dire need of a boost.
So if I was still sitting around that table I would be urging councillors to ask its community what it wants, before going too far down the road of spending every penny in the coffers.
Maybe there is a compromise that will benefit residents of today and those of the future.