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Broadcaster slams Belfast City Council over £16 fee levied on families trying to repair graves of loved ones

By Victoria Leonard

A leading radio presenter has branded Belfast City Council a "brutal, uncaring bureaucracy which has no empathy" after it started charging families £16 to allow repairs to be carried out on headstones.

Last month, the Belfast Telegraph revealed how the council had cordoned off more than 100 'unsafe' graves in Roselawn Cemetery with blue tape and posted warnings that they were unstable.

So far, the council has deemed 158 memorials across Belfast unsafe - nine in Balmoral Cemetery, one in Shankill Graveyard, three in Clifton Street and, as of mid-February, 145 in Roselawn Cemetery.

And in a further twist, the council claimed a worker had received a voicemail threat in relation to the safety assessments on graves.

Music journalist and BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster Stuart Bailie - whose father James' Roselawn grave was deemed unsafe - revealed that families seeking to make repairs to graves are having to pay the local authority an access fee on top of repair charges.

"Belfast City Council hasn't shown a lot of empathy or sympathy - it has been utterly chaotic," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We got the work carried out on dad's grave in time to have the posts and tape taken away for the second anniversary of his death, but we found out that the council are charging the contractors appointed by the families £16 to visit the graves.

"The contractors then pass that charge on to the family, so each family is paying on average £100 to gain access and get the gravestone fixed.

"It is like coming into contact with a brutal, uncaring bureaucracy which has no empathy. There are signs up beside the graves, there is no heart.

"Since the tape and posts were erected I have been back to Roselawn two or three times and I have seen people wandering around looking completely lost, and with extra distress on their faces.

"No one else seems to care."

Stuart said that the council is "re-traumatising" bereaved families by carrying out manual tests to assess the stability of headstones, ahead of potential testing by a 'Toppletester' machine.

The machine applies "controlled force" to the top of gravestones to confirm that a memorial is unable to withstand a force of 25kg, and is therefore a danger.

"I have spoken to a number of memorial sculptors and they say that the health and safety work is pure vandalism, as rocking a headstone back and forward loosens it, breaking the pure cement bond that holds it in place," Stuart said.

"This brings back all the stress and pain, yet graveyards should be a place for contemplation and trying to preserve the good memories of loved ones.

"There is no pastoral feeling or compassion, people are left with this trauma to manage themselves. Some families have not yet been contacted and there are no clear instructions about the memorial management assessment.

"On the council's website there is a brochure which appears to be for the benefit of industry and is written in dry 'legal-ese'.

"There is still no clear, easy-to-understand information for families who are being left to their own devices."

A spokesperson for Belfast City Council said: "The £16 is an administration fee for a memorial permit.

"It is a one-off fee that is paid to receive a permit to allow work to be undertaken on an already existing headstone.

"The Toppletester has not been used so far at Roselawn Cemetery. Council employees have been given in-depth training on how to visually and manually identify any memorial that is deemed unsafe."

The spokesperson said a council worker had received a threat.

Police said a message had been left on the voicemail of an east Belfast cemetery office in the early hours of April 13.

However, a PSNI spokeswoman said: "No specific threat was made against any individual/s. Police spoke with management and the matter was treated as a nuisance phone call."

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