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Is Southwark Council burying bodies illegally?

22 September 2015

Save Southwark Woods has requested Southwark Council provide copies of their consultation with the Environment Agency (EA) for the development of new burial on the Woodvale boundary of Camberwell Old Cemetery.

Southwark’s planning application to themselves in 2012 is here. It does not appear to contain any reference to consultation with the EA for approval of Southwark’s new burial plans:

Woodvale burial planning application documents

In 2013, Southwark Council cut down an ancient hawthorn hedgerow on the Woodvale boundary, and mounded over hundreds of old graves to create over 1,000 new burial plots.

Save Southwark Woods understands that local authorities must consult the EA about any developments to create new burial space, even if there is no apparent change of use.

Searching the Woodvale planning application documents from 2012, SSW campaigners found no record of any consultation by Southwark with the EA.

Cemeteries can be one of the most hazardous sources of groundwater contamination – for example groundwater run-off infected with ecoli. So councils have a duty to consult the EA for planning applications relating to new burial as they could be a risk to public health.

SSW has written to Council Leader Peter John and Head of Planning Simon Bevan to ask for a copy of their consultation with the EA for the Woodvale site.

If the EA did not approve Woodvale for new grave space, and the site is unsuitable for burial, then are burials there since 2012 illegal? Not to mention a risk to public health?

Burial in standing water is illegal.

Both Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries are in drinking water catchments, Groundwater Source Protection Zones (SPZs) and lie over underground springs. Last winter, new graves in the Old Cemetery were waterlogged for weeks and the dangerous runoff from new burials streamed out of the cemetery and down local streets, risking public health.

Groundwater from the cemetery  streaming out onto Forest Hill Rd
Groundwater from the cemetery streaming out onto Forest Hill Rd

And now, Save Southwark Woods has learned that the council might also not have consulted with the EA on their latest planning applications for more than 4,500 new graves. These cemeteries may in fact be sites that are completely unfit for burial due to their groundwater conditions.

“Did Southwark Council ever seek permission from the EA to reopen Camberwell Old Cemetery for new burial? asked Blanche Cameron spokesperson for Save Southwark Woods.

“Has Southwark Council ever consulted the EA over any of the new burial areas within the borough, and I am including Nunhead Cemetery, too?”

Save Southwark Woods is campaigning to preserve over ten acres of woods, 150 years of memorials and the graves of hundreds of thousands of London’s Victorian poor, to create a 100 acre nature reserve. Almost 10,000 supporters want a healthier solution to be found to Southwark’s burial needs.