Crematorium given green light to expand onto protected fields at Bristol's last working farm

The land includes fields that have been farmed for decades by Catherine Withers and her family
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Controversial plans to expand South Bristol Cemetery onto protected meadows in the greenbelt used for grazing by Bristol’s last working farm have been approved.

A planning committee voted 5-3 on Wednesday night (November 29) to grant Bristol City Council permission for the extended graveyard despite dozens of objections, including from Avon Wildlife Trust because it would mean the loss of valuable habitat.

The land includes fields that have been farmed for decades by Catherine Withers, who runs Yew Tree Farm, and are also a designated Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI).

All three councillors who voted against giving the go-ahead were Greens, and the opposition group criticised the decision after the meeting.

Group leader Cllr Emma Edwards said: “We all agree that we need a strategic approach to burials for residents of Bristol that is not just a short-term stopgap solution like this one but offers a longer term viable option that does not pit the burial of the deceased against the future of the living.”

Cllr Christine Townsend (Green, Southville) said: “This decision fully demonstrates why the citizens of Bristol are losing faith in the planning process.

“There is zero evidence that other sites for burial have been considered, and until all possible alternatives have been fully investigated and excluded, the protections of the ecology and wildlife should have been upheld.”

There was a vigorous campaign to save Bristol's last working farmThere was a vigorous campaign to save Bristol's last working farm
There was a vigorous campaign to save Bristol's last working farm

Cllr Tony Dyer (Green, Southville) said “We are ready to support Catherine Withers in whatever action she now decides to take following this decision.”

In September, Yew Tree Farm was given a reprieve when Bristol City Council’s development control committee delayed its decision on the expansion plans.

At the time, members raised concerns about the future of the farm if it lost its grazing land to graves.

They were told the city was rapidly running out of burial spaces, which the local authority must provide, but councillors requested more information from council chiefs about what options for alternative burial sites had been explored.

But when the committee met again last night, nothing new had been submitted.

Committee chair Cllr Ani Stafford-Townsend told the meeting that if permission was granted, all other SNCIs in Bristol would be under threat of development.

Cllr Stafford-Townsend said: “The applicant’s own ecological report says there will be harm done to this site.

“I’m not prepared to take the applicant’s word that they have looked at other places, and I’m not prepared to destroy this piece of land on the say-so of goodwill.”

Cllr Guy Poultney (Green, Cotham) said: “We have seen absolutely nothing to suggest the council could not provide that burial space elsewhere.

“We deferred this to get the council’s evidence for the urgent need, but we have a document that says ‘we found a site that’s convenient, we’ve looked no further, we’ve found nothing else, this is our preferred site’.

“That’s the strength of the council’s argument. The council has found what it wants to do and simply pursued that.”

But Cllr Katja Hornchen (Labour, Brislington East) said: “For the council to say it is running out of burial space, I would believe it – we were told it was two years.”

She said the assertion that Yew Tree Farm would go out of business if the plans went ahead “doesn’t seem to bear out”.

Cllr Hornchen said there was an “emergency” because of the country’s high death rates and need for burial plots.

Planning officers said that while cemeteries, unlike new houses, were not subject to restrictions in the greenbelt, SNCIs were, but that in this case it was judged that no harm would be caused to the site.

Cllr Poultney said afterwards: “I feel terrible for the residents and campaigners who are losing an incredibly important wildlife site because it’s the most convenient place for the council to develop.

“Every policy we were promised would protect nature and the environment failed to protect this site.

“People will feel let down and betrayed and it’s not hard to see why.”

Three Labour committee members, a Lib Dem and a Conservative agreed with officers’ recommendation to grant consent.