A London council is to be allowed to bury people in land on top of war graves after a Church of England court gave it permission.
The council received 660 objections to the plans, which involved clearing scrub from raised land on top of graves where 48,000 people including 48 First and Second World War soldiers are buried, and making the space available for more burials.
The case, which is thought to be the first of its kind, will allow the council to bury 700 new people in the space, in Camberwell Old Cemetery, south London.
Campaigners opposing the plans claim this is a "test case" which could pave the way for other space-poor boroughs to make similar provisions. The case is likely to be referred to by other Chancellors in future cases concerning reuse of land.
Both the council and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which advised on the plans, said that they will not bury anyone directly on top of a war grave.
But the graves are currently unmarked, and locals say they are concerned that the proposals are not sufficiently respectful.
A spokesman for the Commission said: "We have agreed with Southwark LBC that war graves will not be disturbed during the process and that no burials will take place above the war graves.
"We only have responsibility for the war graves and these have all been identified and will not be affected by the works.
"We follow a similar process at other sites where the war graves are exempt from any reuse scheme."
The other people buried in this area, who are generally poor residents who were buried in mass graves, will have burials made on top of them.
The Commission’s rules say that war graves must be marked where possible.
But in his judgement Philip Petchey, Chancellor for the Southwark Diocese, suggested that some of the graves could be left unmarked.
He said: "It occurred to me that in the present case it might be better for all 48 graves to remain unmarked both as reflecting the position at the time of burial and also as of now not seeking to make distinctions between the remains of those buried in the same area."
It’s a pretty serious aspect to come out this late in the day. The detail is not at all clear
Blanche Cameron, chair of Friends of Camberwell Cemetery, said that the group did not know about the war graves until the Church's judgement came out, and was concerned that the commitment not to put further graves in the same place as existing war graves might not be kept. They have been campaigning against the plans for several years.
“It’s a pretty serious aspect to come out this late in the day. The detail is not at all clear,” she said.
In a blog post the linked campaign group Save Southwark Woods said: “The lack of respect for the nation’s heroes is just one of many reasons why Southwark’s burial project is not fit for purpose.”
While the graves are not in a churchyard, some of the ground is consecrated, so the council had to ask the Church of England court for permission to proceed.
The council said it is trying to add to the limited burial space in the borough.
A spokesman said: "The burial plots created mean that local people will continue to have the option to be buried in their local communities and avoid paying for more expensive burials outside of the borough.
"The council is considering all available options including reuse, which other councils have already done, but this will require public consultation."
The borough’s burial strategy, which may include opening some graves to add further bodies, will create 4,865 new plots in total.
It has been legal to reuse graves in London since 2007, but it is still against the law in the rest of England. It has been legal in Scotland since March last year.
The capital faces a critical shortage of burial space. Two boroughs – Hackney and Tower Hamlets – have stopped burying people in the borough altogether. Residents have to go to neighbouring boroughs.
The City of London has already reused 1,500 graves in an effort to deal with the problem.
Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, said that burial policy needed reforming to give all councils permission to reuse graves.
“The law is a nonsense at the moment. We need to wipe it all aside and make provisions that prioritise the bereaved,” he said.