City's treatment of Highgate Wood keeper has been shameful

THE City of London (the Corporation) has for many years been extremely generous in caring for open spaces such as Hampstead Heath for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. For those who live in north London, however, the gem of these facilities is p

THE City of London (the Corporation) has for many years been extremely generous in caring for open spaces such as Hampstead Heath for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. For those who live in north London, however, the gem of these facilities is probably Highgate Wood with its very large playing field, superb children's playground and beautifully maintained natural woods.

Having walked in the wood myself for more than 20 years and come to know the place and the staff there very well, I was shocked recently to discover how the Corporation is proposing to treat one of its keepers. It is a shameful story.

Dennis Fletcher worked in Highgate Wood for over 30 years. Before reaching 65 in May 2006, being very fit and active, he applied to have his contract extended by three years and was supported in this by his line manager, Ray Poole.

In February 2006 he received a reply from Mrs Jennifer Adams, Director of Open spaces. She said that due to the very manual nature of his work, involving tree climbing and using a chainsaw, a one year extension was appropriate and continued: "In terms of any future extensions to your contract I will review your situation in the spring of 2007 and will again make a decision based on satisfactory performance, attendance and medical assessment".

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Her letter concluded: "May I take this opportunity to thank you for your willingness to remain in your role in Highgate Wood which will allow new colleagues to benefit from your wealth of specialist knowledge and experience before your eventual retirement".

Dennis was delighted. Not only was he to be allowed to continue working (and his health and performance have never been questioned), he was being positively thanked for being willing to stay on.

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He was shattered, therefore, when he received a letter this April from Simon Lee, Superintendent of North London Spaces, refusing to let him work for the second of the three years he had requested.

Citing a new retirement policy introduced by the City of London last November, Simon Lee went to great lengths to tell Dennis why he was being turned down for a second year. Instead, he was granted an extension of just six months, to this November, and this, it was stated, was merely due to staffing problems in the wood.

It seems that the assurance given to him in February 2006 that any further extensions to his contract would again be based on his performance and health was to be ignored. What a falling off from the old motto of the Stock Exchange, 'My word is my bond'.

Dennis appealed against this decision and on July 11 received a letter from Peter Lisley, Assistant Town Clerk, rejecting the appeal. The letter contained the following chilling phrase: "Having discussed the matter with Mr Lee there does not appear to be a business justification for you remaining in post".

Highgate Wood is not run as a business and to dispose of an employee after 30 years loyal service because they lacked a ''business justification" seems to most people to be both uncivilised and offensive.

They are the wrong words and represent the wrong attitude to running such a very special and highly valued public service.

I only heard about this issue very recently and decided to circulate a petition protesting at the enforced retirement of Dennis and appealing for him to be allowed to go on.

In five days I collected over 400 signatures. Others are now taking the petition around the wood and the number has more than doubled. Dennis is very widely known here and is regarded with respect and affection. Forcing him to retire in November would be regarded by many as extremely unfair and be a PR disaster.

If the City of London's policy about retirement has changed so that employees are now more or less obliged to retire at 65, then this would be contrary to the government's attempts to encourage people to work longer and, indeed, raise the retirement age. Depending on the result of a case now before the European Court of Justice, it may also turn out to be illegal.

But whatever their legal position is or turns out to be, what strikes most people I have met in Highgate Wood, and makes many of them extremely angry, is the completely callous way in which Dennis Fletcher is being treated.

I invite any readers who share my feelings about this to follow me and contact Chris Duffield, Town Clerk & Chief Executive, City of London, Guildhall, EC2P 2EJ. The more of us who protest, the greater the chance of preventing this gross injustice.


Talbot Road, N6

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