THE COUNCIL has been branded "disrespectful" after knocking down more than 20 gravestones in a cemetery amid health and safety concerns.

Workers from Reading Borough Council have laid the headstones at a cemetery in Caversham, some of which date back 80 years, flat to prevent them falling down and injuring someone.

But the move has been slammed by resident and keen environmentalist Chris Webster, who said it looked a mess.

Mr Webster, who likes to visit the Hemdean Cemetery site at least once or twice a week to admire the nature, raised concern after finding the graves had been toppled.

The amateur biologist was also left horrified after officers chopped away at shrubbery throughout the cemetery in Victoria Road, which is a designated as a local wildlife site.

Mr Webster, now retired from his work at the BBC's monitoring department, said up until last month council officers were rarely present at the site, but since January they have been coming in several times a week equipped with heavy machinery.

He said: "It's disrespectful. It looks a bit of a mess but nobody ever really goes there.

"The risk to life is very minimal.

"It's supposed to be a nature reserve and they are really messing it up."

The Health and Safety Executive requires councils to inspect memorials at least once every five years.

When the council needs to take action on an unsafe gravestone it should write to the registered grave owner to inform them of the works.

Council bosses claim they have no choice but to carry out the work because the headstones had deteriorated.

They pointed to an incident in which an eight-year-old boy died when he was hit by a falling gravestone in Scotland last year and say they will not put the lives of schoolchildren at the nearby Caversham Primary School at risk.

Mr Webster, of Piggott Road, said: "No doubt a gravestone falling on someone could be dangerous, but in an exercise like this the council should have a sense of proportion.

"These stones are part of our local heritage, and lend a particular sculptural beauty to the scene."

He pointed out that a small wooden cross memorial had also been pushed over.

"Exactly how much of a danger was that poor thing?," he said. A council spokesman said: "We fully appreciate the sensitivities of any work carried out, but gravestones do deteriorate over time and we hope people appreciate we need to balance these sensitivities with our obligation to keep cemeteries safe.

“The work is carried out by professional stonemasons and follows guidance issued by the national Institute of Cemeteries and Crematorium Management.

"Unstable crosses and larger structures are always the biggest concern and the test of how unstable they are varies depending on the size of the memorial.

"Memorials are only laid flat where it is absolutely necessary for safety reasons and we will subsequently try to contact family members.

“Following complaints from local mourners who complained about the inaccessible state of Hemdean cemetery, overhanging vegetation has been cut back and ivy reduced.

"Work is carefully selected however, and large areas are left untouched. The cemetery has a diverse herbaceous flora and any work is sensitively carried out to preserve the site’s botanical diversity.”