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Council's sale of gravestones could be death knell for memorial masons – and many other local businesses

3 September 2015
Councils selling memorials could be a nail in the coffin of memorial masons.

Memorial masons have failed to stop North East Lincolnshire Council from going into competition with them on the supply of tombestones.

The Council says it plans to sell memorials at cost on a non profit-making basis… at first. Masons argue that the Localism Act allowing councils to trade commercially seems to require them to establish separate companies for the purpose. Not doing so means the business will be subsidised by rates used to pay for staff and premises.

North East Lincolnshire Council says it is currently a member of NAMM and on the British Register of Accredited Memorial Masons (BRAMM) “and are therefore fully compliant with the above scheme”.

The council would not say who is supplying its memorials because its says the contract is not yet signed. It simply states that “a memorial manufacturer has been awarded the contract to supply memorials to the Council”.

The Council, advised by its legal department that it was entitled to operate in this way, decided at its meeting this month (September) to implement the scheme “at the earliest opportunity” after identifying what it described as a “healthy market” for memorials.

Its Cemeteries & Crematorium Service receives about 224 applications a year for the right to erect memorials in the council’s cemeteries in Grimsby and Cleathorpes.

The council was already selling vase plaques, wall plaques and above-ground vaults.

Previous attempts by the National Association of Memorial Masons (NAMM) over many years to stop councils selling memorials to the public have been successful, but North East Lincolnshire maintains that the 2011 Localism Act allows it to trade in this way. Other councils are keeping a close eye on the result.

Phil Potts, the National Executive Officer of NAMM, says: “Memorial masons are very small fry in the grand scheme of things, but if you start looking at funerals in general it’s much bigger.” And he believes councils will be looking at funeral services as well as many other areas.

The North East Lincolnshire Council says its move will “enable the provision of professionally installed headstones and memorials”, rather than “homemade and less robust memorabilia”.

It says the initial non profit-making basis of the business could be changed to a ‘trading model’ if demand proved to be sufficient.

The proposal to introduce the ‘memorialisation service’ was approved originally by the Council’s Cabinet in August last year, but the decision was challenged by NAMM.

The Council’s legal department has now concluded that the council does have the statutory powers to provide the ‘service’ under the terms of the 2011 Localism Act and its recommendation to launch it has been approved by the Cabinet. It anticipates the Council can start selling memorials next month (October).

Before this month’s decision by the Council, NAMM had already sent letters to other trade organisations to try to rally support for its opposition to the move. Phil Potts says the response to that letter has been positive and the aim is to have a meeting with other concerned organisations.

NAMM has also written to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Funerals & Bereavement to try to illicit support from MPs.

Comments posted on the website of a local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, which reported the Council’s decision to sell gravestones, are mostly opposed to the move.

“So, what’s next?” writes one entry. “NELC hairdressing, double glazing, dog grooming, printing services, gardening services, wedding photos, painting & decorating? Perhaps the council should open a supermarket to provide food at ‘cost price’? How about a garage, cars and maintenance at ‘cost price’? Why not go the whole hog and undermine all local businesses?”

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