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Price war threat as East Cambs Council set to build £9m Mepal crematorium

Within 30 minutes travel time of Mepal, council believes there is a potential market of 993 cremations per annum

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A price war has been promised by East Cambridgeshire District Council once their £9m crematorium is built at Mepal near Chatteris. East Cambs Council claims the privately owned crematorium at March – 12 miles away – will be “most impacted” once their own is up and running.

The council’s finance and assets committee on January 25 is expected to use its Conservative majority to agree the full business case for Mepal, even though costs have rocketed since the first estimate of £6.5m.

The council proposes to fund the crematorium from its Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

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The council’s argument is that as the ‘bereavement centre’ is community infrastructure, it can use CIL to fund the entire capital costs of the build.

Design by Benchmarks Architects showing the projected £7m crematorium at Mepal, Cambridgeshire.

Design by Benchmarks Architects showing the projected £9m crematorium at Mepal, Cambridgeshire.

“This will de-risk the project for the council and ensure that the future operation and income generation is not fettered by significant borrowing costs,” Isabel Edgar, director of operations at East Cambs Council, will tell the committee.

She says by using up to £9.06m from the CIL ‘other pot’ this will not impact on any already committed CIL projects “and does not change the future apportionment of CIL collection to key thematic and strategic priorities such as: health facilities, district wide community facilities, and water and flood management”.

The current CIL ‘other pot’ stands at £7.83m and projected CIL income into the ‘other pot’ up to November 2024 is £9.3m, says the operations director.

With the likely build rate of around 18 months she believes the CIL ‘other pot’ will continue to “replenish and can be applied to the project as appropriate.

If the CIL ‘other pot’ does not reach the required level of funding (at any point in the build) or where an item cannot be allocated to CIL, then the shortfall will be funded from borrowing”.

Her report also reminds the committee that a survey found “that 73% of responding funeral directors stated they would consider using alternative facilities if they became available”.

Design by Benchmarks Architects showing the projected £7m crematorium at Mepal, Cambridgeshire.

Design by Benchmarks Architects showing the projected £9m crematorium at Mepal, Cambridgeshire.

Her report omits the detail.

In October and November of 2018 – 15 months before the council announced its Mepal plan – they “sought feedback” to evaluate need.

Funeral directors from Ely, Chatteris, Cambridge, Willingham, Ramsay, Wisbech, Bury St Edmunds, Lakenheath, Ely, Newmarket, March, Soham, and Downham Market were contacted.

They were asked what crematoria they use, how many cremations they undertake annually, and the cost.

Critically the council wanted to know “would they consider using alternative facilities if they became available”.

Only 11 responses were received but these provided “vital information.

“Of note, was the finding that 73 per cent (eight) would consider using alternative facilities in the area if they became available,” says the report.

It also says that a year later, when a potential bidder for Mepal retracted their offer, “this finding from the funeral director survey subsequently drove the project forwards”.

Once the plans were formulated and “with the funeral directors showing signs of support” an outline business plan was created.

Ms Edgar, appointed to her role in 2022 and busy now with the full business case, says: “The location of the proposed bereavement centre will to a greater degree challenge the current ‘market share’ of the dominant private sector in the north of the district, which is keeping charges high against the public sector provider in the south of Cambridgeshire.

“Consequently, a new facility at Mepal will offer fundamentally better value for money in the marketplace for residents in the centre and north of the district.”

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She said it will also provide “a value for money alternative for residents within the south of the district should they wish to use services within East Cambridgeshire”.

She believes the Mepal crematorium undertaking 700 cremations per annum would represent around 70 per cent “of the factored annual capacity”.

Ms Edgar said: “With the crematorium, based in March, currently undertaking 1,100 cremations per annum the projected impact based on the needs analysis and competition appraisal in is that this facility would be the most impacted following the opening and establishment of the crematorium on the Mepal site.

“The projected impact will be far less for the Huntingdon Town Council crematorium, and this can be mitigated by close working between the publicly owned crematoria to mitigate unnecessary competition and to better manage the peak operating months.”

Using CIL money, she says, not only negates borrowing costs but enables the crematorium to reach sustainability based on only 535 cremations per annum.

The financial modelling assumes increasing numbers over the first 10 years up to 700 cremations.

Ms Edgar says that within 30 minutes travel time Mepal there is a potential market of 993 cremations per annum based on a population of 195,390 people, 1,807 deaths per annum and 1,355 cremations per annum.

“Following competition appraisal and an analysis of usage of the current and planned crematoria and the impact of the crematorium on the Mepal site it is projected that circa 800 cremations is a prudent and achievable market capture per year,” she concludes.

Council leader Anna Bailey said: “This new bereavement centre will provide us with a beautiful, tranquil, and peaceful setting where we not only go to say farewell to loved ones but can return to again and again to keep them alive in our hearts.

“This is a unique offering, and, in my mind, there is nothing more precious we can give.”

If approved it is expected work will start on the bereavement centre as early as the summer.

Cllr Bailey added: “For many years this site has been unloved. Following an arson attack and closure as an outdoor centre, the council has been open to ways we can breathe new life into the site.

“We are confident that because we already own the land and have proven experience of generating income for the council, within two years the bereavement centre, which will provide services to families at or below the market rate, will also begin to generate an income for the council.

Aerial view from 2020 of the fire ravaged Mepal centre

Aerial view from 2020 of the fire ravaged Mepal centre PHOTO: Terry Harris

“This will help support the council’s finances over the coming years.

“This much-loved site will be able to continue supporting the wildlife that has made it their home, as well as providing a new service and support to residents at a time of need in their lives, in a beautiful and reflective setting.”

The council is also exploring working with a club to resume fishing at the site.

The new Mepal crematorium will have:

  • Porte-cochere drop-off area with a colonnade.
  • An entrance lobby with an adjacent welcome/waiting Area (with toilets).
  • Vestry and bearers’ room.
  • 100 to 125 seat chapel with views out to the landscape setting of the site.
  • Small 6 to 12 seat side chapel for smaller ceremonies (including natural burials) with views out to the landscape setting of the site.
  • An electric cremator powered largely by Solar PV on site.
  • Covered cloistered area with adjacent flower garden as the main point of egress for attendees.
  • A crematory, mortuary, ashes store/cremulator and an external storage compound.
  • Staffing and administration facilities with rooms for families and funeral directors.
  • A room for the Book of Remembrance.
  • Minimum of 80+ parking spaces for crematorium visitors, with separate staff parking.
  • Natural burial area, using the natural landscape of the site.
  • Modular functions building to support the natural burial area.

Ms Edgar says the crematorium will “significantly contribute to the council’s wider regeneration and employment generation objective by incrementally creating 6.5 jobs and by ensuring a sustainable end use of an effectively ‘brown field’ site”.

The council is also exploring working with a club to resume fishing at the site.

East Cambridgeshire Council concludes it will run the new crematorium itself ‘following the review of the financial model and the impact of VAT on the facility”.

Work could start this summer on the £9m crematorium on the site of the former outdoor centre at Mepal near Chatteris. A council report indicates it will under cut pricing at Fenland Crematorium, 12 miles away.

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