Anger at pounds 70,000 Kew lodge bill

Gardeners' strike: Pay-row staff question cash spent on house for director
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Impoverished gardeners at Kew, who went on strike for the first time in 200 years last Friday, are furious after discovering that pounds 70,000 has been spent on refurbishing a Queen Anne revival house for one of their bosses.

While some of the gardeners have been offered a 0.9 per cent increase on wages as low as pounds 7,800 a year, Temperate House Lodge, one of 39 listed buildings inside the Royal Botanical Gardens, is being prepared for the personal use of Dr Charles Stirton, the Director of Science and Horticulture.

According to one source, refurbishments include pounds 15,000 of furniture hand-picked by Dr Stirton and his wife, Jana. He said last night that he and his wife, who will be letting their own flat, were given a choice in several ranges of furniture, but did not know what was spent.

Temperate House Lodge is one of four listed buildings being renovated for staff within the gardens. Designed by William Nesfield in 1866, it is a detached three-bedroom home that has traditionally been let to staff. The previous incumbent was John Simmons, the former curator, who retired last year.

According to John Lavin, Kew's Director of Operations, Mr Simmons had occupied the lodge for 20 years without a refurbishment, resulting in it having to be completely re-roofed, re- wired and plumbed.

"We would have been duty-bound to carry out these repairs whether or not Charles Stirton was moving in," he said. "This money was ring-fenced for that purpose. It isn't being taken out of gardeners' pay packets."

Money for the project was allocated from capital grants given by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which funded Kew to the tune of pounds 16.5m this year. Like others who occupy homes in the gardens, across all grades, Dr Stirton will have to pay just one-tenth of his salary in rent.

Gardeners, who will be discussing the possibility of further strike action with other colleagues next week, told the Independent yesterday that morale was "rock-bottom". Their pay dispute is dragging on from 1995, meaning some workers have had no pay rise in two years. The gardeners, in many cases world experts in their chosen speciality, are paid between pounds 7,800 and pounds 11,000 a year.

"We feel used and undervalued," one said. "Dr Stirton is given the use of this house for a peppercorn rent when we can't even be paid a living wage." One employee said there was a feeling among staff that fewer of the flats and houses in the grounds were being made available for poorly paid workers, but Mr Lavin said statistics did not bear that out.

Last night, Dr Stirton said: "The decision to refurbish the house was taken last June or July. I was asked if I wished to take staff accommodation and I accepted. I was only offered it because the new curator [Nigel Taylor] wanted a different house nearer to the herbarium. It is only a small house and we were given the choice of a number of ranges of furniture offered by the contractor. That is perfectly normal."

He said workers' salaries would have been worse had it not been for appeals to the Treasury by Mr Lavin and himself.