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Cambridgeshire council faces down ‘vicious price war’, ‘white elephant’ and ‘cartel collusion’ claims over £9m crematorium

Council warned to expect Fenland Crematorium owners to hit back by reducing fees

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East Cambridgeshire District Council was warned they were treading a legal tight rope by threatening operators of the Fenland crematorium at March with a price war once they open a £9m crematorium at Mepal.

Cllr Lorna Dupre warned: “The business case for the Mepal crematorium relies on one strategy – taking on the Dignity owned crematorium in March in a vicious price war which it is not clear the council will win.

“If the Conservatives crematorium succeeds it will be by running its neighbour into the ground, something the proprietors of the March crematorium are unlikely to take lightly.”

The Knights End Road, March, crematorium opened in 2010 and is only 12 miles from the crematorium East Cambs Council plans to build on the site of the former Mepal outdoor centre.

“Because there isn’t a large enough market the Conservatives have proposed to try to soften the blow for the third crematorium in the mix at Huntington by proposing close working to mitigate unnecessary competition,” said Cllr Dupre.

“As I pointed out when this proposal was presented to the council’s finance and assets committee that this is a cartel collusion between operators in the same business sector punishable by up to five years in jail for its directors.

Aerial view from 2020 of the fire ravaged Mepal centre (left) and an architect’s impression of the £9m crematorium planned by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

Aerial view from 2020 of the fire ravaged Mepal centre (left) and an architect’s impression of the £9m crematorium planned by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

“And if the Conservatives crematorium doesn’t succeed in putting Dignity out of business in March, and if their proposal for collusion with Huntingdon doesn’t work out, this will be a massive white elephant draining taxpayers money and forcing tax rises not for services to the public but to throw into an expensive money pit. In short no thank you.”

Her colleague, Cllr Mark Inskip, also expressed concern about the Mepal plan and he said that the crematorium business plan would use £9m of CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) money which the council had received from housing developments.

Cllr Mark Inskip said East Cambs midterm financial plan for 2027/28 relies on an income of £272,000 from the crematorium

Cllr Mark Inskip said East Cambs midterm financial plan for 2027/28 relies on an income of £272,000 from the crematorium

He said there were much better, more community focused, ways to spend such a sum and he accused the council of not listening to the public who he felt were against it.

Cllr Inskip said the report backing the investment (it was agreed on Monday by 14 votes to 9) “talks about a total of around about 800 cremations a year moving to the Mepal site.”

And the report made clear, he said, where some of that business will come from – the 1100 cremations at a year that take place at March.

But he warned that Fenland Crematorium owners, Dignity plc, would respond, as made clear in their public accounts, by tackling competition by reducing their fees.

“They believe the short-term hit from fees reduction will result in a long-term revenue increase to increase sales volume,” he said. “So, it will be reasonable to expect them to cut fees in March to see off the competition”.

He quoted a case where Dignity had done just elsewhere in the country and if they were to do a similar exercise once Mepal opened “that would have a serious impact on the assumption that are made in the business case”,

Cllr Inskip said East Cambs midterm financial plan for 2027/28 relies on an income of £272,000 from the crematorium.

“That figure could be dramatically impacted in a highly competitive environment potentially descending into a loss, a loss that would have to be subsidised by council taxpayers,” he said.

He also spoke of concerns about Huntingdon Town Council who also operate a crematorium and the perception of “close working between publicly owned crematoria to mitigate unnecessary competition.

“As I raised at the finance and assets committee I strongly suspect that it will be a contravention of the Enterprise Act 2002”.

Cllr Inskip added: “The evidence is clear that the crematorium is not wanted by the local public and the business case is seriously flawed”.

Cllr Bill Hunt, however, supported Mepal crematorium and said there was no facility like it in the district and it was a sign of a “go ahead and progressive council” that it would be built.

He said: “It’s not a commercial operation; it’s a facility which will be very useful and heartwarming to the residents of East Cambridgeshire.”

Pointing to Lib Dem councillors he told them: “It’s all very easy to criticise but let’s see what the alternative is. I don’t think there is one not really.”

Cllr Julia Huffer (who lives 17 miles from the proposed new crematorium) spoke of her mother, who turns 94 in April, and she hoped that when the time comes she would be able to have her cremated at Mepal to “say goodbye”.

She said: “I’ve been to too many funerals in Cambridge City and the ghastly thing along Bar Hill which is just soulless and awful.

“I went to a funeral recently in Bury St Edmunds which was also soulless and awful.

“If I’m going to say goodbye to a loved relative or a friend or anybody else I want to be able to go back there a year later and remember them fondly.”

She said of Mepal: “This isn’t about cost. I would pay double whatever March is charging to make sure that my mother has the right kind of sendoff.

“This is about providing a facility for the living, for people who can go somewhere to remember the people that they’ve said goodbye to.

“This isn’t about how much money it’s going to make, it’s more important than that. “This is about giving something to our community that everybody can respect, admire, and remember the people that they have said goodbye to is the most difficult day of their lives.

“Let’s make it the best day possible under the circumstances and I will be supporting this.”

Cllr Dupre had earlier added to her comments by telling colleagues; “It is obvious to almost all East Cambridgeshire residents this crematorium is the wrong proposal in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.

“It was deliberately removed from the Conservatives corporate plan so that it could be developed in secret with public money spent on it behind closed doors.

“The vast majority of East Cambridgeshire residents don’t want it and it is located at the furthest edge of the district; in fact, there is literally nowhere in East Cambridgeshire that is closer to its nearest competitor at March

“And it has been developed not with the primary intent of providing a service to residents but to laundromat £9 million of developer contributions intended to enhance local communities into ready cash to subsidise Council Tax.”

Cllr Charlotte Cane argued that the £9m of CIL money could have been used on “much needed community facilities” and possibly something along the lines of the former outdoor centre.

Cllr Charlotte Cane argued that the £9m of CIL money could have been used on “much needed community facilities” and possibly something along the lines of the former outdoor centre.

Cllr Charlotte Cane argued that the £9m of CIL money could have been used on “much needed community facilities” and possibly something along the lines of the former outdoor centre.

“Instead, we’re using it to compete with existing crematoria which already provide services to our residents, but it is clear that we are not going to win a price war with Dignity and there is the risk that we are entering into a cartel which would be illegal.

“I think it’s an ill thought through proposal.”

Cllr Lucius Vellacott said opposition councillors “are so lost in their own portrayal of confusion that they are trying to sell the residents of this district a story of an evil Tory moneymaking plot when we’re simply building a bereavement centre which we can afford in a sensible and beautiful place”.

He accused Lib Dems of a “total contempt for people that we’re serving” and they had been “disgraceful in the debates and some of them can’t even pay attention as I’m speaking so how they can face grieving East Cambridgeshire families I have no idea”.

Council leader Anna Bailey said the council had already funded multiple community projects and there were still “significant funds” left in the CIL reserves with more coming in all the time in “pretty much the fastest growing district in the country”.

She added: “This is a totally appropriate use of CIL money since this is literally a piece of community infrastructure and CIL stands for Community infrastructure Levy; this is a community facility for local people, and it is literally what it says on the tin.”

Cllr Bailey added: “I’ve been contacted by lots of people who have quietly told me they think it’s a wonderful idea.

“It is enormously disrespectful to the work that’s gone into this.”

She said it was wrong, too, to describe it as a cartel and a laundromat for raising cash.

“There is nothing wrong with the council using its money financially well and making wise investments to support the medium-term financial plan of this authority; that’s a happy outcome of this.”

 

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