The decision to delay new wedding bookings for months is against “people’s human rights” and may even force some couples to put on hold their plans for starting a family, says the head of operations at one of Essex’s biggest wedding venues.
Alex Rayner, chief executive officer at Braxted Park near Witham, has estimated that the venue will lose around 15 per cent of its normal bookings because of the decision from Essex County Council (ECC) to halt further civil ceremonies until after October.
ECC, which supplies registrars to non-religious venues, says high demand created by postponed ceremonies due to COVID-19 has meant it has had to stop taking new wedding bookings until October.
But Mr Rayner says that ECC had been warned more than a year ago that a surge of weddings expected in 2021 needed to be planned by recruiting more registrars.
Mr Rayner said: “What annoys us is that we told ECC about this storm brewing a year ago. We said at the time ‘come on guys, you have got to be ready for this’ and they know it. And so why was there not a plan put in place by local government to counteract this situation as it brewed?”
He now understands that a large recruitment drive has taken place and once they have got people they can be registrars in six weeks.
But Mr Rayner said the delay will impact hundreds of couples desperate to get married – not least because they want to marry, but so they can start a family.
To give it some proportion – there are more wedding venues in Essex than in any other county – and with each official ceremony costing £650, ECC earns millions each year by just providing the registrars.
Last week alone Braxted Park had to turn away two couples wanting to get married this summer – potentially losing the venue a sizable income. But Mr Rayner explained with wider consequences for the families involved.
“It’s not about money,” he said. “It is about a human right to enable people to get married when they want. Look at some of these people – they have had their weddings effectively prevented for the last 18 months. Many of these people are desperate to get on and have families.
“Some of these people on multicultural levels are not allowed to live together until they are married and their weddings are limited to a certain number of people anyway. It is almost prejudicial to prevent someone from getting married.
“It is not about the financial impact on the venue per se but that of course, is a large consideration. It is more about the human impact on the brides and grooms that have been unable to get married for a year-and-a-half.
“That has serious implications on people’s wellbeing and serious implications on their life plans. Think of all those grandparents who won’t make their granddaughters and grandsons weddings – not through Covid but through the simple mathematics of life.”
A spokesperson for ECC previously said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has created a massive pent-up demand for wedding services. There are the weddings which were postponed last year and the normal number of weddings which take place every year. Roadmap restrictions are still in place for weddings until at least June 21 and possibly beyond.
“Demand for weddings this summer is therefore much higher than usual. The numbers of weddings already booked to take place this summer in Essex already exceed 2019 levels and are 15 per cent higher than the average annual numbers for the last five years (2020 excluded).
“When taking bookings we have to ensure that we are able to service them, so we have had to place a cap on the number of weddings taking place over the summer months – albeit that cap is 15 per cent higher than previous years.
“No weddings have been cancelled, there is simply a pause on booking new ones. Other local authorities have taken a similar approach for the same reasons.
“Once we have recruited more staff, we will endeavour to take on new bookings where possible. ECC has been working with venues directly throughout this process and the Government General Register Office.
“ECC has to consider the published Government Roadmap of restrictions and we must all be mindful that the Covid-19 situation and restrictions could change at short notice. At this moment restrictions are still in place and we would also ask people to understand that the safety and wellbeing of ECC staff, as well as the public, is important.
“ECC needs to be sensible. It would be reckless to book in too many extra weddings and not being able to staff them”
ECC denied that there is a link between wedding bookings being postponed and a restructuring of registrars’ terms of employment – for registrars to become permanent employees on annualised hours contracts.
An ECC spokesperson added: “We are currently in consultation with our sessional ceremony officers in relation to our proposal for ceremony officers to be permanent contracts of employment with ECC on annualised hours contracts.
“We know from feedback that many of our ceremony officers welcome this, especially after a year of uncertainty. No decisions have been made as our consultation is ongoing at this time.”