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Save Southwark Woods asks Environment Agency to halt all burials in Southwark cemeteries due to potential health risks

24 September 2015

Community group and Southwark Burial Strategy Stakeholder Group member Save Southwark Woods (SSW) has today contacted the Environment Agency (EA) requesting that they halt all burials at Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries because of potential risks to public health.

SSW believes that Southwark are allowing new burials to stand waterlogged, and allowing burial water run-off to flow onto cemetery paths and onto local streets.(see photos).

Planning applications to create 800 or more new burial plots at the cemeteries are before the EA at the moment for consideration. These applications are just Phase 1 of a plan to add over 4,500 new burials.

However, SSW has reason to believe that Southwark council is not taking proper precautions today to avoid risks to public health, let alone from the 4,500 new burials they are planning.

Groundwater from the cemetery streaming out onto Forest Hill Rd
‘Gruesome juice’ Camberwell Old Cemetery – new burial and ground waterlogging in a drinking water catchment area.

“We are asking that Southwark Council be held to the same standards as religious and privately owned cemeteries. We believe Southwark may be putting the public at risk and we urge the Environment Agency to stop these plans until they can investigate fully,” said Blanche Cameron, spokesperson for Save Southwark Woods.

“The Cemeteries are waterlogged, metres from Thames Water’s Honor Oak Reservoir. They are unsuitable for new burials even if they were managed properly and we believe they are not.”

“We aren’t experts but surely you can’t just let recently buried bodies lie in standing water and then let that water flow onto paths and roads where our children and pets walk and play? That is why burials must be halted now.”

Almost 10,000 people are now calling for these cemeteries and woods to be left to grow as nature reserves, with benefits for generations to come.

The letter to the Environment Agency planning advisors is below.

Dear Ms Leber, Ms Wyatt,


Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries, Southwark, London

We are sorry for contacting you so soon after our last contact but as a local community group we really are extremely concerned about the burial situation in Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries, owned and operated by Southwark Council.

We are asking that the Environment Agency halt burials in these cemeteries immediately for the following reasons:

We believe that Southwark are allowing new burials to stand

waterlogged (see photos)

We understand that this is illegal

Southwark is allowing burial water run-off to flow onto

cemetery paths and onto local streets and drains

The owner has dug channels from fresh graves to the streets

where the wastewater flows (see attached photos).

Waterlogging is caused, we believe, by the very high water table due to the thick layer of London clay very close to the surface, and the springs and run-off from the long 100m high ridge above.

Many of the new burial plots are dug into the clay layer. Rainfall or spring water then gets trapped by the London clay (see photo attached, standing water in trenches less than 1mtre from surface).

Now, the council has applied for an additional 800 or more burials at these sites and plans thousands more.

We are concerned Southwark has not made provision to deal with burial water safely. We are concerned that the council’s treatment of new burial may already be creating health risks to both cemetery workers and the public within and outside the cemeteries. These cemeteries are accessed every day by the public. Legislation covers these issues as they present risks to health.

For new burials, we understand Southwark has not carried out Tier 2 or Tier 3 assessments for either cemetery. Both these cemeteries are SPZs and metres away from Thames Water’s Honor Oak Reservoir.

We understand the information Southwark has given you is currently with your technical teams. Would you please forward this information to them also?

We are also asking the Environment Agency to halt burials immediately while these dangers are addressed and before approval is granted for any new burial development.


Blanche Cameron

Save Southwark Woods – Southwark Burial Stakeholder Group


Environment Agency:

Director of Operations South East, Howard Davidson

Area Manager, Andrew Pearce

Deputy Director Water Quality, Paul Hickey

Constituency MP

Harriet Harman MP, Camberwell & Peckham

SSW supporters

Zac Goldsmith MP, Kingston & Richmond

Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party

Darren Johnson AM, London Assembly Leader of the Green Party Group

Jenny Jones AM, Baroness Moulsecoomb

Caroline Pidgeon AM, London Assembly Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group

Sian Berry, Green Party Candidate for Mayor of London



Southwark council has not communicated with the Environment Agency about their overall plans for over 4,500 new burials in these cemeteries. These applications for 800+ are just Phase 1.

AREA Z, Camberwell Old Cemetery

Southwark’s applications 15/AP/3184 and 15/AP/3185 for 740 new burials on Area Z would remove hundreds of trees (not shown on plans – see photos) that help to manage the risks mentioned above.

Area Z is an SPZ and lies at the bottom of a long slope from the 100m steep narrow ridge that runs along this part of south London, from Upper Norwood along Sydenham Hill to Westwood Park, which feed the Rivers Peck, Effra and Herne.

Even with the existing Green Infrastructure, the houses below Area Z experience regular flooding as does the entire cemetery

There is a layer of London clay, but this is very close to the surface (see diagram below and photos attached). New burials are cut into the clay, water seeps into the grave and the bodies lie in standing water, and flood when it rains.

The council propose a soakaway as the means of surface water drainage for 800 new burials over the next 3 years.

AREA D1, Camberwell New Cemetery

Area D1 is a virgin wooded hillside, rare landscape character feature for London, adjacent to One Tree Hill Nature Reserve (Great North Wood), and an SPZ. The trees and woodland undergrowth currently help manage rainfall and flood risk.

Southwark’s application 15/AP/3190 for over 100 new burials on this rare virgin wooded hillside proposes removal of these trees and woodland, Green Infrastructure, which will increase these risks.