Sunday, February 28, 2010

Luxury, Tax-free Castle with Moat

This week the United States revealed the winning $1bn design for its new mission in London, which will be the most expensive embassy ever constructed. (The one in Baghdad was a bargain at $600m.)

The price does not include the 17.5% VAT that all UK constructors have to pay the Treasury, but from which the USA considers itself exempt. American diplomats also owe the Treasury £32m in unpaid congestion charge fees and other fines, a state of affairs which led London's former Mayor Ken Livingston to refer to the then US Ambassador Robert Tuttle as a “chiselling little crook”. (Perhaps it is no coincicence that the new site is outside the congestion charge zone.)

Grosvenor Square has featured a little piece of the USA since John Adams first established the new nation's mission to the Court of St James's in 1785. But in 2016 or thereabouts, 23o+ years of continued American presence in Mayfair will come to an end, thanks in part to a protracted protest by local residents against the security measures enacted there...or indeed not enacted there, since 9-11. Instead of ugly concrete blast barriers, the new design by Kieran Timberlake features a 100ft moat and some rolling parkland between it and the badlands of Wandsworth.

The statues (such as the one of Eisenhower in the foreground below) are staying put, which is appropriate given the role Grosvenor Square played in America's contribution to WWII. Nicknamed Eisenhower Platz, my father remembers how the square was gravelled over so it could serve as a massive military car lot outside Ike's HQ at No20, with the railings all removed, presumably to make more Sherman tanks. (We didn't get our iron railings back in Eaton Square until the mid 70s.) One wonders if the residents back then (probably actual British passport holders in the main) were quite so vociferous in their whingeing when these changes were imposed.

The square was also famously the scene of a massive anti-Vietnam war protest on March 3, 1968. Vanessa Redgrave (now a regular on Nip/Tuck and newly elected BAFTA fellow) was there that day leading the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party and was permitted, along with three supporters, to enter the embassy and deliver a protest. Later things turned ugly and 200 people were arrested and 86 treated for injuries received during the 'battle'.

With their new moat American diplomats will now be able to fart in the general direction of English discontent much like John Cleese's French castellan in Mony Python and the Holy Grail.

The present, soon-to-be-discharged building was put up in 1960 (while the previous one was handed over as MacDonald House to the Canadian High Commission) and is expected to be re-purposed by the Qatari Diar investment group as a hotel.

Given that it was granted Grade II listed status in 2009, the former embassy's new Arab owners will have to put up with the massive gilded eagle that perches atop the facade. Back in the late 80s my friend Thom — whose mother was in fact American (Georgian 'aristocracy') — suggested to me that he'd like to pick it up with a helicopter and the drop it right back on top of Eero Saarinen's modernist fortress. These days that sort of casually anti-yanqui remark can earn one a trip to the Caribbean.

The Qatari's will no doubt feel at home here, as one suspects that many of the properties around the central park are owned or rented by middle-easterners: which may explain why the embassy's American occupants have been feeling a bit edgy of late.


Damian Hockney said...

You say that the USA "considers itself exempt" from VAT, but this is not strictly true. International tax law dictates that all countries embassies and high commissions share a level playing field on taxation, and that includes the exemptions. It is international law (agreed by, and used by, UK officials that is the start point, not the opinion of any one nation). The Congestion Charge is different as there is a dispute on whether it constitutes a tax. Four years ago, the EU joined the USA in declaring that it believes the Congestion Charge to be a tax. Unfortunately, when the then Mayor Ken Livingstone put the price up 60% while not offering any increase in service provided, he effectively pushed the boundary of possibility in favour of it being a tax (on international and agreed definitions). In spite of being challenged, no London administration or UK government will take and publish tax advice on this matter! The reason is that, unfortunately, the C-Charge (as constituted) is a tax and any advice they take will make this clear. Easier, then, to play politics and attack the country or politicians that you do not like - rather awkwardly, though, St Obama's administration share the views of the "chiselling little crook" on the matter.

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