Safety plan for South Ribble's churchyards as £140K work progresses at 'most dangerous one ever seen'

South Ribble Borough Council has set out how it plans to maintain some of the district's churchyards to prevent them posing a danger to the public.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 4:39 pm

For the first time, the authority has adopted a formal policy on how it will discharge the health and safety duties it acquires once churches are no longer creating new graves within their grounds. So-called "closed churchyards" are shut for burials, but remain open for visitors - and responsibility for them at that point shifts from the church to the local council.

The document was drawn up in the wake of a long-running saga involving St. Mary’s Church in Penwortham, whose churchyard was described by experts as “the most dangerous” that they had ever assessed.

The authority will now carry out regular inspections at all of the facilities for which it is, or becomes, responsible - something which did not happen at St. Mary's for 20 years. There are currently two other churchyards in the borough with partially-closed sections - at St Leonard’s in Walton le Dale and St. Saviour’s in Bamber Bridge.

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Specialist contractors are ensuring that the headstones in St. Mary's churchyard in Penwortham are secure (images: Neil Cross)

Burials at St. Mary's - on Church Avenue - largely came to an end back in 2000, except for the interring of the deceased in existing plots.

However, it was almost two decades before the borough council did anything other than cut the grass on the consecrated ground at the Church of England facility.

Yet as soon as a churchyard closes, the local council becomes responsible for keeping it “in decent order” - a duty that goes far beyond maintaining its appearance.

The church’s vicar, Chris Nelson, first raised fears about the safety of some of the headstones in his churchyard more than a decade ago - and became so concerned about the risk of the monuments seriously injuring or killing someone that he commissioned a stone mason to inspect them in both 2014 and 2019.

Some of the dangerous were laid flat before repair work began

The resultant assessments were damning, with the churchyard being branded “an accident waiting to happen'' in the most recent report. Over the years, dozens of headstones were laid flat to prevent an accident.

However, it was only 18 months ago that the council undertook its own inspection - which reached an equally concerning conclusion in which the firm conducting it said its expert staff had felt “in danger” doing their work.

The authority has since committed £140,000 for maintenance at St. Mary’s churchyard, which began late last year and - in addition to making safe almost 400 dangerous headstones - also includes work to ensure the stability of the churchyard wall.

“No-one wants to see anyone exposed to risk of injury or death through dangers in a churchyard, with all the pain, distress, loss and worry that will follow after an accident of that type,” the new council policy states.

South Ribble Borough Council became responsible for maintenance of the churchyard once it closed to most new burials in 2000

Rev Nelson says he is relieved that no other clergy will be placed in the same fretful position as he found himself for so many years.

“This story has gone from being one where nobody was doing anything to one where everyone has put their shoulders to the task - council leader, chief executive and staff - and every credit to them for that. I can’t compliment them enough.

“South Ribble is now setting the standard for other districts to follow when it comes to churchyards,” he said.

Responsibility for headstone memorials ultimately rests with the person who erected it. Once they themselves have died, it passes down to their heirs and continues through subsequent generations.

The condition of the headstones at St. Mary's had been a cause of concern for the parish's vicar for more than a decade

However, after decades - or even centuries - have passed by, tracing the actual owner and persuading them of their duty in relation to a memorial becomes more difficult - and councils retain a general responsibility to ensure that closed churchyards are “reasonably safe” for the people visiting them.

Under South Ribble Borough Council's new guidelines, the authority has committed to keeping families and parishioners informed of any planned work to headstones, which will only be undertaken if it is deemed to be “proportionate and realistically needed”.

‘FROM THE WORST IN THE COUNTRY TO THE BEST’

When the work at St. Mary’s in Penwortham is complete, around 140 memorials in the northern, Victorian section of the churchyard and almost 250 elsewhere will have been made safe. Paths across both sections of the site - where there are a total of 1,650 headstones - are also being upgraded.

The pandemic and bad winter weather have slightly delayed the process, which is now expected to be completed in the coming months, having begun late last year.

“It’s a skilled job, which involves the headstones being dug deeper into the ground - you can’t rush it,” Rev Nelson explains.

“Those carrying it out are mindful that they mustn’t impact on the graves - and also, of course, they need to be respectful of the fact that this is a burial ground, as they have been.

“I have been contacted by people who have visited the churchyard recently and were very complimentary about the improvements.

“Some people have said that the lettering towards the bottom of their family's headstones has been covered up, so they have been given the details of monumental masons who can elevate the memorials again, but on a secure base. That is the responsibility of the individual who owns the grave.

“Having been one of the worst churchyards in England, St. Mary's will now probably turn out to be one of the best when the work is done.”

The final part of the maintenance work to be completed involves ensuring the stability of the churchyard wall. In January, Storm Christoph caused a landslip in woods owned by the church.

“The wall will have to be removed - as well as potentially some trees and remains. However, these are very old graves and do not belong to people who have relatives still living - they are not anybody’s grandparents or even great grandparents.

“The wall will then be reinstated - but it’s a major job, that’s why it costs so much. All of these things are expensive, but over the last 13 years, the church has forked out tens of thousands of pounds maintaining something that we weren’t responsible for,” Rev Nelson said.

South Ribble Borough Council’s cabinet member for finance, property and assets Matthew Tomlinson said of the work at St. Mary’s: “The churchyard was in need of urgent repairs, with a number of headstones in a dangerous condition and requiring work in order for them to be made safe. This has now been resolved.

“This money will also allow further repair works to be carried out at the churchyard and additional funds have been set aside to address issues with the churchyard wall.”