Funeral costs to soar after sell-off

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BRITAIN's council-owned crematoria are likely to be sold to private companies to help meet crippling bills for the cost of meeting new environmental regulations on pollution.

Under the Environmental Protection Act, crematoria have to meet new smoke-emission standards, and the cost is likely to be at least pounds 450,000 to upgrade each crematorium. The Government has also told councils that they must seek private sector partners or buyers before getting any taxpayers' money for the improvements.

Town hall officials and consumer groups are warning that a combination of expensive bills for the pollution clean-up, and the involvement of companies seeking profits, will cause funeral costs to shoot up. The average fee at a local authority-run crematorium is pounds 150; in a private one it can be nearer pounds 200.

Kirklees in West Yorkshire needs pounds 1m for the upgrading of its cremators at Dewsbury and Huddersfield, while nearby Bradford is faced with a bill of pounds 1.8m.

Peter Linsell, acting manager at Kirklees Crematoria, said that private investors would be offered a percentage of the cremation fees in return for their investment. He admitted that fee increases were "a big worry".

The town halls, which between them own 228 of Britain's crematoria, have come under pressure to sell to private companies or find a private sector partner following the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative - a government attempt to involve the private sector in previously exclusive public sector activities. If a local authority sells an interest in a crematorium, it will be allowed to keep 90 per cent of the capital receipts instead of the usual 50 per cent.

Cremations are big business.More than 70 per cent of the 570,000 Britons who die every year are cremated and the industry has a turnover of pounds 100m a year. In Charnwood, near Loughborough, where the local council sold its crematorium on a 50-year lease in 1993, fees have nearly doubled since privatisation, from pounds 90 to pounds 160.

"We don't want the hard-sell approach in the disposal of the dead," said Bob Coates of the Confederation of Burial Authorities. "People who have just lost a loved one are very vulnerable to exploitation. They can be persuaded to buy expensive items simply because they are upset."

Some crematorium companies employ staff whose job it is to persuade the bereaved to buy expensive memorial sales services such as ornamental trees, rose bushes and niches for urns, he said.

Of the 35 private crematoria, 15 belong to the US-based Service Corporation International (SCI), which also runs many funeral directors.

In May the Monopolies and Mergers Commission voiced concern at the tie- up between between SCI's funeral directing business and its crematoria.