WOKING Borough Council chiefs have secured a deal to take over the country’s largest burial ground.
The authority announced on Friday that they have allocated £6 million from their funds to buy shares of, and invest in, Brookwood Cemetery over the next two years or so. Of this, £500,000 will be working capital. They said the acquisition will be at no extra cost to the taxpayer.
They bought the site from owner Diane Holliday, who will retain management of the burial business, along with her son Kevin. The commercial terms of the purchase remain confidential.
Despite her best efforts, Diane realised that the scale of improvements needed to secure the future of the 19th-century site was beyond her financial reach. She told the News & Mail: “After the initial disappointment, we are feeling quite hopeful for the future.”
To facilitate the extensive restoration, the council have established Woking Necropolis & Mausoleum Ltd, as a subsidiary within their Thameswey Group, to run as a private concern.
Executive Councillor for Planning & Heritage, Graham Cundy, and Deputy Chief Executive, Douglas Spinx, will be directors, along with current Thameswey Chairman Barry Maunders.
Council Leader John Kingsbury said: “We consider Brookwood Cemetery to be a vitally important part of Woking’s heritage and future. Since the end of the First World War it has declined in quality due to lack of investment.”
The 232-acre site off Cemetery Pales is on the English Heritage ‘Top 10 At Risk’ list and, until now, Woking has been one of the few authorities not to own a burial ground.
Cllr Kingsbury added: “The council faced a major challenge – to stand by and see the site deteriorate further or to intervene. We decided we owe it to future generations to interject now.”
Diane added: “While I am saddened that I needed to sell, I recognised the proposal to acquire the business from me was, for the long term, in the best interests of Brookwood Cemetery. It is part of my heart and I am looking forward to working with the council to ensure its success.
“I will now be able to concentrate on meeting the needs of customers while the council, with my full support, establish its future.”
Cllr Cundy said: “This is an opportunity for us to restore our structural and environmental heritage as well as provide a burial facility for generations to come.
“I look forward to working with our colleagues at the site, English Heritage, and the community in developing the plans.
“We intend to restore it to its former glory. It is fundamental to our history.”
The Victorian drains are in critical condition, with much of the land totally waterlogged. Mr Morgan said: “It will be a very long-term programme, starting with restoring the drainage systems.”
Cllr Kingsbury added: “We cannot provide a quick fix for nearly a century of decline, but we will work with other agencies to restore the site and make it, once again, a high-quality place for burial. Over the next two years or so, we will develop plans for a series of improvements by 2020 that will make the borough proud of this important site.”
The military cemeteries and memorials remain in the hands of the respective war commissions, who initially took over part of the site in 1917. The Brookwood Cemetery strategy will be reviewed in April 2017 to decide how best to move forward.
Mr Morgan added: “You won’t see a major transformation for some time. Meanwhile, the cemetery will continue to run as it is. Availability of burial spaces in the borough is not adequate, so we are expecting to secure more facilities. We hope to see an increase in burials and to generate revenue from the site.
“It is an investment of public money for public good. It will run as a private concern and will take about two years of planning.”
Certain intricate details need ironing out before plans can go ahead fully, but Mr Morgan added: “I am delighted Diane has agreed to sell and will retain management. She believes in the place and we are using that passion to take Woking’s ‘gem’ to the fore.”
Diane said: “We are really looking forward to this opportunity. While we’d have preferred to run the cemetery on our own, we would not be able to safeguard its future, so we think this is the answer for the long term.”
Mr Spinx said: “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure this historical area for the borough and restore something of great significance.”
The Grade I listed burial site was founded in 1852 by the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company and is considered by English Heritage as a site of national significance. Without it, Woking as we know it would not exist.
In the more recent history of Brookwood Cemetery, the site passed through a number of hands before Ramadan Güney took ownership in 1985. Latterly, he and Diane, his partner of six years, ran the business until his death in 2006.
The site then became the subject of years of dispute over inheritance between Ramadan’s children from his late wife and Diane, who was ‘frozen out’ from the operating company and then dismissed.
In 2011, the inheritance of the cemetery was successfully challenged by Diane and her son Kevin. This decision was upheld by the High Court on appeal in 2012.