Reprieve for Bristol’s last working farm as cemetery expansion decision delayed

Bristol City Council wants to expand South Bristol Cemetery onto meadows used by Yew Tree Farm
Yew Tree Farm’s Catherine Withers addresses councillors at City Hall. Her family have been farming in the area for 500 years.Yew Tree Farm’s Catherine Withers addresses councillors at City Hall. Her family have been farming in the area for 500 years.
Yew Tree Farm’s Catherine Withers addresses councillors at City Hall. Her family have been farming in the area for 500 years.

The last working farm in Bristol has been given a six-week reprieve after a decision on expanding a cemetery onto farmland was delayed. Bristol City Council wants to expand South Bristol Cemetery onto meadows used by Yew Tree Farm for grazing.

The council applied for planning permission from itself for the expansion, and the plans have caused controversy. Bristol is quickly running out of space for burial plots but the meadows are important habitats for local wildlife, which would be converted into a graveyard.

Councillors on the development control B committee voted to defer a decision on granting permission, in a meeting on Wednesday, September 6, for about six weeks. By then more information should be published on alternative burial sites, and the committee could choose to refuse permission.

Critics of the plans said the cemetery expansion would harm wildlife and habitats, and two of the planned plots are protected as a Site of Nature Conservation Interest. But the council said the expansion could “serve nature too”, with a new pond habitat, hedgerows and trees planted on the site — despite also building new roads on the currently nature-rich meadows.

Catherine Withers, from Yew Tree Farm, said: “SNCI is protected land. It’s like trying to knock down the cathedral. I’m 53 now, I love doing what I do. Being a farmer means everything to me, producing food that I know is the best quality food I can, and giving back to nature.

“And if you’re just doing this without a second thought, I’m just done. I’ve already been kicked out of 15 acres for trying to fight a housing development. Look what you’re doing, this is one farm left. 28 down to one, and you’re trying to get rid of that.”

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees said the council-owned land had been allocated for expansion since the 1960s, and would include 1,500 adult and 260 baby burial plots, as well as new memorial plots and associated roads and footpaths. He added that the council’s eight cemeteries are running out of room, so expansion was needed to make sure people could still be buried in the city.

Writing on his blog, Mr Rees said: “The proposed expansion entails enough land to cover 25 years of ongoing burials in Bristol, including vital space for a diverse range of faith burials to address community needs alongside an adjacent area for infant burials. This is a necessary decision to make and the correct one.

“We are able to enact this expansion now, thanks to a long-sighted agreement between the council and Yew Tree Farm. In May 2021, council officers met with the farm, providing a generous temporary grazing agreement on the land beyond the scope of the initial expansion set to take place over 10 years, in the knowledge that some of that land would be claimed back for the necessary burial expansion.”

Ms Withers disputed the claim of a “long-sighted agreement” between her farm and the council. She said she was told in 2021 by council officials that historic permitted development would be used to enable the expansion.

Mr Rees added: “The current proposals are to use less than 10 percent of the land currently used, without tenancy, by Yew Tree Farm. The council is presently in direct discussions with Yew Tree Farm on granting a long-term lease for the remaining 90 per cent of grazing land. The council has continued to engage the small farm during the application process.

“Similarly, officers have taken steps to submit a robust set of flood monitoring and ecological assessments, including a new wetland pond habitat, new hedgerows, and tree planting. These measures will ensure a rich biodiversity is maintained across the site, supporting local ecology to continue to thrive.”

But councillors on the committee said they had concerns about the plans, particularly the way the council had treated Ms Withers and Yew Tree Farm as well as the potential harm to local wildlife. It’s also unclear whether the council has looked at any alternative options for providing new burial space, or chose the farm simply out of “administrative convenience”.

Councillor Steve Pearce, Labour group leader, said: “There appears to have been a degree of fumbling of the ball here. It appears to me there has been a lack of good manners. This appears to me to have been butter-fingered and ham-fisted in the way that this has been done.

“But if the council were to start piling bodies in coffins in warehouses because of a lack of burial space, I’m sure there would be an equal or greater public outcry. The council might be very embarrassed at what it’s doing to Yew Tree Farm, or what it might be perceived to be doing to Yew Tree Farm.

“The administrative convenience of the council in owning a particular plot of land and being able to extend its burial space into it, that administrative convenience is not a planning consideration. The applicant’s convenience isn’t necessarily something I’m going to place at the top of my agenda.”

Green Cllr Ani Stafford-Townsend added: “A lot of this is hinging on ‘this is our only option’. But there are potentially other options and we haven’t explored them. There’s no reason in my mind that we need to be pressed into making this irreversible decision.

“There are other options. We’re a massive landowner, we have other plots of land in the city that we could potentially use that we haven’t explored. If we vote to reject the officer’s recommendation today, it would automatically come back to the committee for reconsidering.

“If we vote to refuse it today, then it will come back in that next committee in six weeks time, with potentially more information. There will also be an item at the communities scrutiny meeting next week, where the strategy for burials will be presented. Then if you decide that you still want to vote for it, it will be with less squinty eyes — or we might decide otherwise.”

If the committee did refuse permission for the plans at the next meeting, that would raise questions about where else in Bristol could be used for new burial spaces. The current eight cemeteries have enough space for only two more years, according to the council, which has a legal duty to provide local burial spaces, including for faith groups, under equalities laws.

Councillors voting in favour of approving planning permission were: Lesley Alexander (Con), Steve Pearce (Lab). Councillors voting against were: Chris Windows (Con), Guy Poultney (Green), Lorraine Francis (Green), Sarah Classick (Lib Dem), Amal Ali (Lab), Katja Hornchen (Lab), and Ani Stafford-Townsend (Green).