Is the era of multibillion-pound embassies in west London mansions over?

The new US embassy in Nine Elms. Image: Getty.

Ask somebody to picture an embassy in London, and their mind will likely conjure up images of grand buildings dotted across the heart of the city. China’s townhouse on Portland Place, for example, or the Netherlands’ mansion in South Kensington, which is just a few doors down from the Royal Albert Hall, or the imposing Grade II listed Australia House on the Strand.

Few would instinctively veer towards a surburban house in Willesden, north London, which looks no different to any other on its road – aside from, that is, the flag pole in its front garden. Or to a semi-detached in Ealing. Or to an office block in Hammersmith. But for countries like Cambodia, North Korea and Tajikistan, their embassies are metaphorically and geographically miles away from the palatial splendour enjoyed by the majority of London’s diplomatic corps.

So strange appears the Cambodian Embassy’s suburban location that it became the subject of Zadie Smith’s short story, The Embassy of Cambodia, which opens: “Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!”

Smith’s book points towards the commonplace assumption that embassies are, at the least, grand buildings located in the parts of London that very few could afford to live in. Does maintaining this aura matter in 2019? According to both diplomats and experts: not really.

Iulian Fruntasu, the former ambassador of Moldova to the Court of St James’s, has positive reflections on his time spent based in Moldova’s quaint embassy in leafy Chiswick. He described the joy of his commute to work, a seven-minute bike ride, and wryly noted that with regards to embassy locations “diplomacy now is played everywhere, including the Millennium Hotel, where tea comes with polonium instead of sugar or manipulation of referenda”.

Fruntasu also pointed towards the symbolic importance of the US embassy’s move to Nine Elms last year, long planned since George W Bush’s presidency. Its former Grosvenor Square location, arguably one of London’s most famous embassies, failed to meet the heightened state department requirements for embassy security introduced following the 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In 2006, it even provoked a hunger strike from a local resident, who just happened to be a Russian countess, over the potential security threat brought to those living in the area by the embassy’s presence.

Evidence also suggests that avoiding the London property market’s sky-high prices is proving irresistible to many countries in a post-Great Recession world. In 2013, Greece sold its consul’s Holland Park villa for £23.3m as part of a privatisation programme to address its sovereign debt crisis. The Netherlands, also set to move to Nine Elms, was estimated in 2014 to have saved its foreign affairs ministry €185m with the sale of their South Kensington embassy, allowing them to halt the closure of consulates in Antwerp, Chicago, Milan, Munich and Osaka.


In 2013, the Evening Standard described the sale of central London embassies as creating “£3bn of super-prime homes in the most exclusive streets in the capital”, something that strikes a discord six years later in a UK acutely aware of the dire consequences manifesting from housing shortages. Fears that Nine Elms and the area around the new US embassy would become filled with hundreds of “buy to leave” properties appear not to have manifested to the extent many feared, but it is clear that for most embassy sales those benefitting in the long run are those least in need of new residences.

But why were these huge buildings so important in the first place? According to Venetia de Blocq van Kuffeler, the editor of Britain’s foremost diplomatic publication Diplomat Magazine, much of this boils down to how, in the days before mass tourism, an embassy was often the only representation that many would see of a country, and was therefore of huge importance as a manifestation of a nation’s identity.

“Hundreds of years ago an embassy and the physical building in London was the main impact that [a] country had in London, in the UK, and in many countries case in Europe” she explained, adding that “the physical manifestation was really important in terms of their image”, noting that in an age of globalisation and 24-hour news cycles this is now of little importance.

That’s not to say that being close to the heart of power isn’t something that is still being taken into account by London’s diplomats. According to John Mulyran, the managing director for Nine Elms’ property developer, Ballymore, one of the things that sealed the deal when the US was choosing its new embassy location was that Nine Elms is a shorter walk to the Houses of Parliament.

Is the era of Mayfair, Belgravia, and South Kensington being the must-have embassy areas coming to an end? Nine Elms is marketed as “London’s new diplomatic precinct”, but has yet to see any big moves beyond the US and the Netherlands, which is yet to actually move, with China deciding against moving there in 2018 and instead going for a space in the City of London.

What is clear is that in an era in which countries have had far greater financial priorities than the prohibitively expensive maintenance of Kensington Palace Garden mansions, the spaces in which diplomacy in London is played out will continue to expand – meaning suburban embassies like Cambodia’s will become increasingly less surprising.

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.