As the NSW election looms, both major parties have buried a big problem, burials. Both Labor’s Chris Minns and Premier Dominic Perrottet have no answer to Sydney’s burial crisis. The city’s public cemeteries expect to run out of space in the next five years. The former boss of the government’s new cemetery manager speaks out in a scathing critique of the lack of accountability and leadership in Sydney’s $5 billion cemetery sector. Callum Foote reports.
“Having had more than 20 years of experience in managing public cemeteries, I can only describe my four months experience as the CEO of OneCrown as highly unusual, if not bizarre, unprofessional, and an immensely frustrating experience” says Robert Pitt, former CEO of NSW’s public cemetery manager OneCrown.
Pitt, who was the CEO of the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority for 12 years, spent less than a year at the newly created cemetery manager OneCrown before stepping down. He is known as one of Australia’s top cemeteries executives and was poached to NSW to oversee OneCrown, the state’s effort to rationalise and bring together cemeteries in one body.
During his tenure at OneCrown, Pitt became concerned with the lack of any coherent plan to tackle the crisis in available burial land and hundreds of millions in liabilities Sydney’s cemeteries need to make up.
“The lack of leadership, both politically and operationally in Sydney cemeteries is concerning,” he told MWM.
OneCrown was created following the recommendations of a report produced in 2020 which showed that Sydney’s public cemeteries were in terrible financial condition.
Cemeteries have an obligation to identify and set aside funds for the long-term maintenance of the cemetery once it is “full” and closed for new burials.
A 2020 report titled “The 11th Hour“, commissioned by the NSW government found that together Sydney’s public cemeteries had $300 million in unfunded liabilities and would not be able to meet these perpetual care obligations.
Given there has been no steps to reduce these liabilities, Pitt said that the liabilities have undoubtedly increased since.
The most recent Annual Reports point to a continuation of increasing expenses, declining revenues, and diminishing profitability,” he said “Disturbingly, the material perpetual maintenance liabilities are still not being disclosed in the government reporting, nor being monitored by the Regulator.
A spokesperson for OneCrown told MWM, “Actuarial assessments have been conducted across all Land Managers, and information pertaining to perpetual maintenance liabilities is included in the 2022 Annual Reports.”
Pitt believes that the “annual reports paint a rosy picture of what is, in my opinion, serious circumstances for OneCrown’s cemeteries, the organisation, the business, and therefore, for Sydney’s communities and the NSW Government. In my opinion, these annual reports are, at best, misleading.”
MWM understands that the actuarial assessments are some years out of date. In the case of the South Sydney land manager, the latest assessment was conducted on or before 2017. Rookwood General has not had an actuarial assessment done since 2019, which was an update on an earlier assessment.
“The assessments of these liabilities are not recent, nor up to date and given the importance of these liabilities, they should have been done more recently,” says Pitt.
It is appalling, say sources in the cemeteries sector, that OneCrown has still has not been legally established by the Perrottet government, and as a result, has been under administration for 18 months.
A spokesperson for OneCrown told MWM that “The administration of the three land managers is ongoing as the Government continues to determine which final model it wishes to adopt for Crown land cemeteries in Sydney.”
This has had the effect that the three crown managers who were meant to amalgamate into OneCrown are still operating largely independently, achieving none of the efficiencies promised by the 11th-hour report.
Deliberate sabotage of OneCrown?
A cemeteries insider who spoke to MWM on conditions of anonymity said that senior officials within the NSW Government who opposed the amalgamation wanted OneCrown to “be stillborn” on arrival.
The Catholic Church’s public cemetery manager has been a very vocal critic of the move and has thus far refused to amalgamate into the new body, and found much support on both sides of the state’s politics.
Discussing the issues that he found with the administration of OneCrown, Pitt said that “The lack of leadership, both politically and operationally in Sydney cemeteries is concerning”.
Specifically, the lack of a formal board of directors, the continued operations of three separate Crown Cemetery Land Managers, and high Executive staff turnover means that, in Pitt’s opinion “there continues to be inadequate long-term planning, business thinking or community engagement for public cemeteries in Sydney.”
The administrator of OneCrown is Lee Sheerer, a Former NSW Police Assistant Commissioner, with little prior experience in the cemeteries sector.
Pitt believes that there is a clear lack of accountability in the administration of OneCrown “It was my view that the OneCrown needs to be consolidated into a single entity, preferably as a State Owned Corporation (SOC), operating with a skilled and experienced Board and Committees, with clear and strong lines of accountability to Government. I was unaware of and did not perceive such lines of accountability during my time with OneCrown”.
Failure of leadership
The consequences of OneCrown’s failure are dire for Sydney’s residents.
“Burials in Sydney will not be affordable for many,” Pitt says
Families will be paying more to have their loved ones remains disposed of, some will not be able to bury them in accordance with their religious or cultural beliefs and existing cemeteries will fall into disrepair.
With American vulture equity firm TPG swooping in on InvoCare, a private cemetery and crematoria operator which currently undertakes 50% of Sydney’s cremations, the commercial opportunities of political failure have been recognised.
Neither the Perrottet government nor NSW Labor are willing to address the issue. NSW Labor leader Chis Minns’ office told MWM that their policies were similar to the governments on the issue.