February 13, 2005
By Raffique Shah
IF ever I were this country's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, given who I am and most of all my modest lifestyle, I'd probably ask the government to provide me with a decent 3-bedroom flat with all amenities. That, by today's property prices in London, would cost taxpayers a mere 500,000 pounds sterling or close to TT$6 million. But I'll never be an ambassador, not in this life or in any reincarnation.
I refuse to conform to European (read colonial) modes of dress: I've never worn a suit since 1970. So how can I represent a country that insists that its parliamentarians don suits in humid and hot conditions, and a judge orders an attorney to "dress properly" even though he was elegantly, and for many, suitably attired?
But there are people who are tailor-made for such positions, and I mean that quite literally. How well I recall Mervyn Assam, during the tenure of the NAR government, presenting himself at the Court of St James (uh-hum!) riding a coach, and looking like an Englishman from his "tails" to his top hat. I had reason to deal with Andrew Rose when I was a cadet at Sandhurst, and he was likewise very English. It was during those early days of our independence that the government bought the building that houses our High Commission on Audley Street in Central London. I was never invited to the High Commissioner's mansion (I presume it can be thus described), which was also purchased way back when, maybe in the late 1960s.
What I do know is that independent countries, rich and poor, insist that their most important legations (London, Washington, Brussels) are "classy". Which, of course, means expensive. London is particularly so, especially over the past 15 years, during which time it has moved from one of the more moderate European cities to one of the most expensive. Those who have cause to visit there know that dingy hotel rooms can be had for around 100 pounds a night while the classy ones run into 250-300 pounds. A Coca-Cola costs a pound. Clothing is very expensive, as are other personal items.
But it's the property market that has gone through the roof, quite literally, dooming the average resident there to rent-for-life, or continue living in the few "digs" left untouched since World War II. In fact, between the years 1994-2004, property prices in Westminster, went up by and astounding 268 per cent! In Camden, a suburb that hardly sees ambassadors in residence, prices jumped by 268 per cent. And in way-out Croydon, the increase is registered at 199 per cent. Put another way, a 3-bedroom, two-bath flat on Baker Street now sells at 500,000 pounds. If you choose to buy a 4-bedroom, 2-bath house in Dorset Square, prepare Ye to pay 1.5 million pounds. Regents Park? No problem: a 2,234 square-feet mini-mansion will cost you 3.65 million. And if you think you are in Laksmi Mittal's (he's the Indian fella who owns what was called Caribbean Ispat until last week) league, then you can opt for a 70-million-pound mansion in Kensington.
I thought I'd dabble a bit on what's happening on the properties market in good old Mother England after so many people in this country have taken grave offence to the government spending-what?-TT$9 million to do extensive renovations to the High Commissioner's official residence in London. Bear in mind that property is an expansive old mansion (from pictures of it I have seen) that no doubt needs an overhaul from its plumbing to its interior. Those who know that city well enough know that some of the best "old houses" don't have proper heating or cooling systems, they have excuses-for-bathrooms, and other features that were meant for the 18th Century (which was probably when they were built!).
To modernise a mansion like that must be a costly exercise. Materials would be very expensive replacing stone floors with tiles, doing over walls, roof, etc. Not only are building materials shooting through the roof, but bear in mind labour costs in England are prohibitive by our standards. The minimum wage is set at five pounds an hour and you are sure no one on a construction site is paid that measly sum. So our property (not Glenda Morean's, not Patrick Manning's, not Basdeo Panday's) will cost, but more important, its value will increase maybe threefold. What, therefore, is the big fuss over taxpayers spending less than one million pounds to end up with a property that will probably be worth more than 10 million when it's finished?
Nothing, I argue. Where have all our High Commissioners to London lived? Not in the same mansion? And what does a Mercedes S-Class cost in the UK? I'll tell them: over 200,000 pounds! Is it that only the hypocrites must live in luxury whether in London or Miami or Moka, that they alone must be chauffeured in corporate-sponsored limousines when they visit London? On a final note: why did Wade Mark run from a middle-income house in Spring Village to a posh flat in exclusive Flagstaff community? Why did he not move to Sea Lots instead?