THE WOODLAND BURIAL TRUST – INSOLVENCY
My vision in 2002 was to develop a woodland burial site to meet the needs of Durham County. The project would also help any one experiencing bereavement and support those facing financially difficulties. During our time we conducted two zero cost funerals where families have struggled with funeral costs.
In 2008 with the full support of Durham City Council a site was identified and work started on the glades. Work was suspended in 2009 by Durham County Council while a review of Bereavement Services was conducted. In February 2012 the local authority agreed to progress and I applied and was awarded a Big Society loan of £60,000 to help with ground works and footpath construction. The project had been offered a grant by the city council, however, Durham County Council declined to reciprocate this offer. During the suspension period the structure of the organisation was also changed into a cooperative ensuring the project had a solid community grounding and not owned by one individual or small group. The WBT was the first community run woodland cemetery in the UK.
The formal opening of the WBT was in September 2012. The launch was attended by many including TV, radio and local authority managers. Later in September our first funeral was booked for the beginning of October 2012. However two days before the funeral the local authority decided to suspend all operations including funerals. The reason for this sudden intervention was to allow them to re-negotiate our lease and enforce a Service Level Agreement (SLA) for grave digging and ground maintenance. These services were sourced and a budget allocated for them in the original business plan utilising outside agencies and volunteers. During the next six month the WBT lost the momentum gained from the launch and other business opportunities. Following the second suspension the local authority implemented a new lease linked to an agreement resulting in 41% of WBT income or £620/funeral going to the council.
During the suspension work continued on building the lodge with a loan from myself of £20000. Launching a business during a recession was difficult, no help was received from the banks, and all initial expenditure was placed on my credit cards. At times I was paying over £500/month interest on these cards.
Business started again in May 2013 and Interments were conducted as families travelled from as far as Essex, Manchester and North Yorkshire to Durham. My health started to deteriorate resulting in my need to rely more on the good will of volunteers. Our original supporters had moved on and new individuals offered help in return for expenses. In January 2015 I conducted basic accounting procedures and discovered over £26,000 had been claimed in expenses during our short trading period. These sums again had not been envisaged in the original plan. It was clear by December 2014 the project was not meeting its financial projections and action was required to reduce outgoings and find an alternative to the crippling local authority SLA.
In January 2015 I started working on a new business plan addressing the expenditure and trying to maximise income. For example there was no need to pay a book keeper to duplicate the work of our accountant. There was also no need to have a full time grounds operative and guardians were asked to consider £10/hour instead of £15/hour claimed. My proposal was not popular with a small group resulting in the threat of their mass resignation. While work was taken to maintain a service my two directors resigned leaving myself as sole director. At this point I intended to call a full extraordinary general meeting. I was persuaded by staff to wait until the full AGM in September. Work would continue with them creating a steering group helping to manage the project over the summer. These arrangements seemed to go well until June 2015 when I missed one of our regular staff meetings due to illness. I received the minutes of that meeting and discovered a number of issues including:
“It was also felt that relations between the group and IR had broken down to a point where a vote of 'no confidence' should be sought at a special general meeting to be held 3 weeks from today. JO and KT will seek to obtain the membership register this week. JO is due to meet with IR and it should be handed over to her. If this does not happen then arrangements will be made to obtain it with help from the appropriate authorities if necessary. Members will be written to and asked to attend.” - Minutes of a meeting held on Sunday 28th June at 3.00pm in the Woodla nd Lodge, at 3pm
My relationship with this group in question started to break down as I pushed ahead with the implementation of the new plan. The AGM was due and I was keen to present to the membership a full account of our problems. Unfortunately our book keeper refused to return the business laptop and accounts for 2015 resulting in my lack of ability to present full information on the year.
During the next month this group made a formal complaint to the local authority regarding their interpretation of inaccurate maps of plots. Complaints were also made to the CIC Regulator in London and Durham Police. The local authority conducted a full audit of the project and apart from a few simple errors in our record keeping all appeared in order. The Regulator made a full investigation and found no reason for concern or intervention in the operation of the CIC. In January 2016, I was interviewed by the police and to date no charges have been made.
In November I called our AGM with the intention to stand down and hand over the care of the project to others. Unfortunately our meeting was interrupted by staff who had resigned and others from an alcohol support group not related to the WBT. The AGM was suspended however we did agree to appoint two new independent members to the management group to help and resolve outstanding issues. One of the new members stood down shortly after following a brutal exchange of emails between her and the group in question.
Since January 2016 the new business plan has turned around the fortunes of the project. Each funeral is now making a profit for the WBT, and without breaching our SLA with the local authority families opted to have graves dug by hand and not with council machinery
I left the WBT in May 2016 leaving the project with over £9000 in the current account.
Following a recent press release and newspaper article it was brought to my attention the project now intends to apply for insolvency? I also gather from a brief exchange of emails the people behind previous difficulties are also behind this. There is no need for the project to consider insolvency, when I left it had a viable business plan, money in the bank and an agreement with The Key Fund to reschedule loan payments. In the past the WBT were tied into regular monthly repayments despite many months could pass without income. The new arrangement would link future payments to funerals and income which appears to be more appropriate for both parties.
The accusations of re-selling plots are misleading. Why would I resell plots when there was over 400 vacant ones. No account was taken of members who opted for their cremated remains to be buried. On such occasions one plot could accommodate three of four sets of ashes, and plot numbers would reflect this. Also some individuals who have partners buried have requested for their cremated remains to be buried in their partners plot. This again will reflect in identical plot numbers. The Northern Echo and Durham Times have had a duty of care to ensure their news paper article are accurate and fair. Discussions with the newspaper will continue with the help of their regulatory agency.
The local authority have a duty to ensure the woodland site continues. The project was praised by all and had a reputation for being one of the best woodland cemeteries in the north of England. I thank you all for your kind thank you cards over the past three years.
Ian Rutland Director (Retired)
"I would like to thank you for your text and there was never any doubt in my mind as to the accusations being made against you. It was a pleasure meeting you Ian and your passion and beliefs were an important part of our decision to bury my brother at The Woodland Burial Trust. I wish you all the best for the future."