Why do councils operate cemeteries and crematoria?
Cemeteries and crematoria are an important, though often overlooked, component of a local council’s services. Is this because their existence is related to one of the certainties of life (i.e. death and taxes)? Or perhaps because these services are typically a relatively small part of council’s overall responsibilities and annual budgets? Either way, things are changing and it is time for councils to start taking a strategic view of this infrastructure.
Despite being an often hidden service, local councils have a significant role in providing these facilities – particularly in regional areas. Cemeteries also continue to be extremely important to the community. Most typically during the immediate years following a loved one’s death. Because these facilities become close to customers hearts, there is also an expectation that they will be available, maintained to a high standard and be appropriately “special”. There is also a common expectation that:
- religious beliefs and cultural practices will be taken into account
- the facilities will be readily accessible reasonably close to home
- the services will be affordable, with a range of options to choose from
Local councils play a vital role in balancing and meeting these expectations and delivering these services to their communities.
What are the current issues in the industry?
There is an increasing awareness that cemetery space in Greater Sydney is nearing capacity – with predictions it will be exhausted by 2050. But this issue also occurs in regional towns and villages. The Bowral General Cemetery or the Berry General Cemetery are ones that come to mind from our previous projects. There are also concerns about maintaining cemeteries in perpetuity, and how to ensure those operating on public land are appropriately governed.
Along with these concerns, there has been increasing entry of private operators into the sector. This has seen competition rise for local council and Crown trust operators – competition that was historically minimal or non-existent. This is particularly the case with cremations. In New South Wales, private operators now manage 70% of crematoria and conduct 75% of cremations. This may reflect the steady growth in preference to cremation over burial (with 66% of people now choosing to be cremated each year) and the rise of ‘no service’ cremations and informal burials.
These issues, amongst others, resulted in a detailed review of the industry by the State government in 2012. This was followed by the introduction of new legislation in 2014 (Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2013) and the creation of a new independent agency (Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW) to oversee and coordinate future directions. It also saw the consolidation of the Crown cemetery trusts in Greater Sydney.
What are the key priorities for the industry?
After many years of neglect, the industry has a renewed focus on its future. The Strategic Plan 2015-2020 released by Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW sets a number of key priority areas for the industry as follows:
- All people in NSW have access to a range of interment services that preserve dignity and respect and support cultural diversity
- All people in NSW have access to affordable and sustainable interment options
- Sufficient and suitable land is available to meet future demand for interment services
- All operators function in a consistent, transparent and accountable manner
These priorities are likely to be the driver for change in the industry.
What are the trends in regional and rural NSW?
Not surprisingly, the overarching picture in Greater Sydney does not necessarily reflect what is happening in the rest of NSW. Notably, over 90% of the 950 cemeteries operated by local councils in NSW are located outside the Greater Sydney area. A large majority of these are closed or used infrequently for interment services. This results in maintenance of this infrastructure in perpetuity. The challenge is then to generate sufficient revenue to fund this ongoing maintenance liability. Where councils have a well utilised cemetery, offsetting the costs of those lesser used facilities can sometimes be achieved. However, for many it remains a question of subsidising costs to a level that still meets community expectation.
Some other points of difference include:
1. Aging population
Whilst the majority of people live in the Greater Sydney area, the majority of deaths and burials occur in regional and rural NSW. This reflects the typically older age profile in these areas. This age profile is set to increase in coming years meaning the demand for these services will also grow. This demand will be compounded by ‘sea-changers’ and ‘tree-changers’ moving into regional and rural areas.
2. Variable cremation rates
The cremation rate in regional and rural NSW is generally the same as the State and Greater Sydney average. However, the rate is highly variable across the regions. The cremation rate is generally much higher in coastal areas of NSW but typically lower in western parts of the State. This reflects the differing facilities available and interment preferences in these communities.
3. Major burial service provider
Local councils in regional and rural NSW have the greatest role in providing burial services to the community. Whereas in Greater Sydney the majority of these services are provided by Crown Trusts, followed by the private sector. Across the State the majority of burials are in new graves with limited take up of renewable tenure.
4. Increased cremation competition
With cremations, the private sector dominates both the Greater Sydney and broader NSW markets. However, some local councils in regional and rural NSW still have a role in providing cremation services. This generally depends on the presence of private operators in the area. As private sector service provision continues to grow, this will see some council services facing increasing pressure from private competition.
Why is planning important for cemeteries and crematoria?
The realities of increasing financial pressures on council operations, the growing commercialisation of the industry, and an aging population, provide several reasons why planning for the future of cemeteries is an important focus for local councils. In Greater Sydney, there is also the pressing issue of land availability and cemetery capacity.
Initial long-term planning for cemetery provision needs to recognise if there are indeed capacity constraints and when, in broad terms, individual cemeteries may need to close. Where no existing land is available, then there is a need to integrate planning for cemeteries and crematoria into the land use planning framework as early as possible. This includes identifying land suitable for this purpose at a strategic plan making stage and ensuring sufficient land is available for this purpose.
However, planning needs to go beyond land use issues and look at this infrastructure from a strategic perspective. Local councils need to resolve whether these facilities will operate as a business or as a service to their communities. This requires councils to examine the various factors which impact upon cemetery and crematoria operations and balance those against community expectations. To remain competitive in the market, local councils also need to review their service offerings and look at ways to innovate. In essence, this will require local councils to take a strategic view of cemeteries and crematoria operations.
How we can help you plan
We have undertaken many business and strategic planning projects for a range of local government businesses including cemetery and crematoria operations. These projects have given us a unique insight into regional cemetery and crematoria operations, trends within the broader industry and knowledge of the legislation. Our services can be tailored to projects big and small, from timely advice on strategic directions to detailed analysis on site specific issues such as master planning. We work closely with our clients in the specific circumstances of the project.
For more information about planning for your cemetery or crematoria facilities, please contact Steve on: