DIPLOMATIC PROPERTIES ABROAD
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London
The colossal amount of money being wasted on expensive accommodation for Sri Lankan diplomatic and 'home based' staff sent on tour of duty from the Foreign Ministry has been the subject for a long time. The decisions made by the Sri Lankan Administration in power as far back as 1998 to purchase buildings for Sri Lankan Overseas Diplomatic Missions and residences for diplomats as well as for non-diplomatic 'home-based' staff were regarded as a move in the right direction towards cost effective economy in terms of foreign exchange drain.
Considering the number of Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry personnel working overseas and the vast amount of monies spent on leases or rent, over the past five decades, it was thought that after all those years the Foreign Ministry was on the right course in forward planning in its policies. The late Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgarmar in this regard took the initiative to utilise the Treasury allocation of Rs.100 million to the Foreign Ministry rather than paying it back to the Treasury as 'unused' purchases of new property in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Pretoria and Beijing and further attempts to buy more in Mumbai and Berlin indicated that the new concept was gaining ground fast.
For over half a century the amount of foreign exchange drain on rented or leased accommodation from the Foreign Ministry has run into billions of rupees in the form of foreign exchange. The concept of purchasing living quarters for diplomats surfaced a few moons ago with the experiment in New Delhi. Subsequent to the Indian experience several Administrations, of different hues, focussed on the issue and performed various exercises, but finally all such studies have been confined only to a lip service to a greater extent.
Taking London as a typical example one could focus on the extensive research done during 1970s and 1980s to achieve this goal in having Sri Lanka's own accommodation for foreign ministry staff that were sent to the UK on tour of duty. Unfortunately due to various administrative and political factors dominating the issue, the idea was put back on the shelf. One thing accomplished during such operations, however, was the purchase of an official residence for the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka at a prestigious location, The Avenue, in St. John's Wood in NW London, with a large garden and incorporating an additional three bed room bungalow ( used formerly as house keeper's quarters) in the same compound. This was considered as a blessing in disguise because this bungalow was refurbished and used as diplomatic officers' quarters thus saving a substantial amount of foreign exchange which would otherwise have had to pay as rent allowance to a UK landlord.
During the late President R Premadasa's regime the huge, unused basement area of No.13 Hyde Park Gardens [High Commission Office building] which was gathering dust was converted into several flats by a special squad of builders and workers flown from Sri Lanka to London. This yet again reduced the London accommodation bill substantially. During the PA Administration a feature article appearing in 'The Island' newspaper highlighted the London accommodation problem and quoted the housing allowances paid to diplomats at the time as £12,000 a month, and that was even after making several savings from the sources mentioned above.
Renting of accommodation in London has always been a nightmare. During this period the house market in London was quite depressed too, which gave every reason or incentive to buy the late foreign minister's idea of purchasing properties for foreign office use rather than having to pay rent allowances of varying degree to officials and leasing of property, which only contributed to make private landlords' bank accounts grow fatter.
The Government having its owned property for diplomatic staff abroad has its other advantages. London was one of the very first destinations to have Sri Lankan offices abroad since her independence in 1948. After 59 years of occupation in London what have we got in terms of investment or saving on foreign exchange drain in particular reference to rent allowances paid to government representatives on tour of duty in the UK?
Bank of Ceylon's London branch was one of the oldest banking institutions in the city of London nestled among reputed international banks. Thanks to short-sighted policies and ineffective management decisions by managers who warmed their executive chairs from London what Sri Lanka has lost in terms of ' property deals' in changing buildings for this institution and acquiring white elephants not only affected the Bank of Ceylon balance sheet but its name was dragged into various scandalous enquires which recently ended up in Colombo where a foreigner who was paid an astronomical amount as his salary took to his heels halfway during the enquiry and left the country.
The Ceylon Tea Centre building at Piccadilly Circus was another asset Sri Lanka lost. 'Ceylon Tea' being a world wide trade label and having their own tea centre in the capital of London had to be closed down finally and the lease of the entire building ' handed over on a plate' metaphorically to an Insurance Company thanks to the mismanagement of its affairs by those who were responsible at the time.
'The Ceylon Students Centre' at Sussex Gardens, a stones throw away from the High Commission building at 13 Hyde Park Gardens was another asset Sri Lanka lost. Here again due to various administrative hullabaloo and inefficiencies of those responsible, Sri Lanka lost this Victorian building. The excuses given for losing this asset at the time was that the government could not afford to meet the cost of the estimated repairs prior to the renewal of its long lease Sri Lanka enjoyed since late 1940s. For a matter of estimated amount of £45,000 for repairs this 'gold mine' was allowed to slip from Sri Lankan grips which ended up as a private property of a middle eastern buyer who renovated later with a swimming pool in the basement area where the value sky rocketed over night to a few millions of pounds sterling!
Despite efforts to find a suitable accommodation in Holland Park, West London, to shift the High Commission Office from 13 Hyde Park Gardens, London W2 during the time late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was in power to house all Sri Lankan institutions under one roof suffered yet another set back due to some internal and personal differences between the then High Commissioner the late Mr.Tilak Gunaratne and the Deputy, the late Mr. Amirthanayagam. Thankfully, this historic building is still under a long lease to Sri Lanka government since 1948, with the basement area converted to flats with the hindsight of President Premadasa to accommodate diplomatic officers.
Amidst such political, administrative and personal drama and melo-drama the only asset that remains as Sri Lankan owned property to house diplomatic staff in London is the spacious house bought as High Commissioner's official residence where many a previous High Commissioner have occupied, the last occupant being Mr. Faiz Mustapha.
It is natural that any building or house needs redecorating and/or attending to routine repairs over a period of time if they are not looked after on an annual basis. For this purpose in England there are special Building Insurance schemes where every house owner is advised to have one. In the case of those who seek bank loans or mortgages from a building society this insurance police is made mandatory. These policies are structured particularly to take the financial strain out of the owner in case of any kind of major repairs ranging from plumbing, electrical, Boiler, heating, water pipe bursts and even cover rebuilding of new houses in the case of any signs of subsiding of the building or due to total destruction by arson or fire. The insurance premiums vary according to the size and the value of the property and these policies are planned so that every house owner can afford to pay such premiums and to save them from any unforeseen financial disasters.
The latest news that has spread like wild fire surrounds this government property allocated as the Official Residence of Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in London. The news that the present High Commissioner has chosen not to live there and rented a private residence of her choice at an astronomical monthly rental of £8000 sterling pounds (Rs.1, 840,000), while two employees occupy this deserted mansion, hit a national newspaper headlines last Friday ( 28 September). The news item revealed further that the original rent for this house which was £3000 had been revised twice to £5000 and the current rate of £8000. The amount spent on rent by the Sri Lanka High Commission in London per month was quoted as £35000 sterling pounds (Rs.805, 0000) to accommodate 25 more diplomatic and not diplomatic officers attached to the mission!
This seems to have upset the hornets nest in Colombo. Pointing a finger at the London based top Diplomat; observers have been forthright in criticising and highlighting the negligence and lethargy of the officials responsible to renovate the only residence belonging to the Sri Lanka High Commission in U.K., to avoid unnecessary wastage of large sums of taxpayers' money on rented premises.
Rumours were afloat for some time among the Sri Lankan circles in London about a 'hidden agenda' worked out to highlight the extent of the repairs to this High Commissioner's residence as 'uneconomical' with a view to convince Colombo and persuade the Foreign Ministry to dispose of the property through a private channel to a property developer which has backfired from the time the news reached President Mahinda Rajapakse very recently.
No property owner has to lose an arm and leg or pay through his nose to get any house repairs done in the UK if one has a ' Building Insurance' which can be arranged over a telephone call in the UK. Whether it is through the lack of knowledge on the part of the senior officers in London to double check with the solicitors who have written the deeds of this building to see whether there is a such an insurance cover already in existence inside a pigeon hole or this aspect has been already overlooked so far, it is high time even at this late hour to take up a building insurance policy for this property and hope for the best rather than falling into the same trap of what has happened in the case of Bank of Ceylon, Ceylon Student Centre and not to mention the Ceylon Tea Centre at Piccadilly in the past.
The six million dollar question the Sri Lankans ask is, "should the present High Commissioner in London need a luxury house at an astronomical rent of £8000 a month for her and her husband to live"?