The complaints of memorial masons about local authorities selling memorials to the public seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
Before the general election MPs had other matters on their minds and although NAMM is encouraging the industry to use its website (bit.ly/selling-direct) to complain to the newly elected MPs about the powers in the Localism Act that allow councils to compete with legitimate, rate-paying businesses, there seems to be an element of resignation that the battle is lost.
Leading the way in taking over funeral and memorial functions is North East Lincolnshire Council, although councils in London are also selling memorials to the public.
North East Lincolnshire started by selling memorials last year and is now looking into offering funerals and other services associated with them. It has even been given a share of a £1million fund by central government so councils who are using the Localism Act in this way can provide other councils with case studies to encourage them to do the same.
In March, NAMM (the National Association of Memorial Masons) and MAB (the Memorial Awareness Board) hired a committee room in the Houses of Parliament to debate the subject. MPs were invited to attend, but only the MPâ€ˆwho sponsored the event so the room could be used turned up.
Eighteen local authorities were invited to argue the case for councils being able to use the Localism Act in order to offer ‘services’ in competition with local businesses. None accepted the invitation and it was left to an academic, Professor Douglas Davies from the University of Durham, to support the idea. The best argument he could come up with was that if councils selling memorials meant the bereaved received a less expensive memorial the benefits to a larger number of ratepayers outweighed the hardship caused to memorial masonry businesses.
Graeme Robertson of memorial wholesaler A&J Robertson (Granite), the chairman of MAB, said: “This debate addresses a matter of fundamental importance to every tax payer in the nation – whether or not local authorities should be permitted to compete directly against small businesses in their area while demanding that the same business pays business rates. This, in our view, is not only unjust but also flies in the face of hundreds of years of a tradition of fair trade and equal competition in our country.”
And the competition is unfair, says MAB, because councils have access to facilities paid for by local taxes – including the business rates – and information that is not available to local commercial companies – not least, in the case of memorials, early notification of a bereavement.