Wealth Blog

Life in the foreign office fast lane

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 11:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 11:50pm

When Carrie Lam complimented the new British Consul General Caroline Wilson on her speech in Cantonese at the recent Queen’s birthday party bash in the British Consulate, she sounded genuinely impressed. It was only when Ms Lam added, almost as a throwaway, that she hoped Ms Wilson would enjoy living in Hong Kong’s most expensive piece of real estate, that the slightest hint of a curled lip could be detected. Many guests probably missed the line altogether, but this was the first news that Ms Wilson had been billeted in what is indeed Hong Kong’s priciest pad, the Frank Gehry-designed Opus on Stubbs Road.

To Hong Kong expatriates this probably hardly raises an eyebrow, numb as they are from paying ridiculous sums in rent. But seen through the British prism of bedroom tax and draconian public spending cuts, news that the rent bill for Our Women in Hong Kong is about HK$720,000 (60,000 pounds sterling) has gone down like a lead balloon. The Sunday edition of Middle England’s favourite newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, yesterday detailed the opulent 4,600 four-bedroom flat in The Opus, where Caroline Wilson, a single lady in her forties, is residing. As civil servant’s pads go, this is not a bad spot to be, but then she has to use it for entertaining and official functions. Of course to a cash-strapped Brit freezing in the drizzle of an English summer, the idea of monthly rent that costs more than their flat does to buy is laughable. But they have probably never been to Hong Kong.

To be fair, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can hardly accommodate Ms Wilson in 500 square feet in Wan Chai. And no doubt they want to send a certain message to Beijing about Britain’s continuing Greatness and putting their money where their mouth is demonstrates a certain sincerity of purpose.

It does beg the question of why, if the Brits are so serious about their mission in their former colony, have they not bought a house decades ago? They would have saved themselves a fortune had they snapped up one of the plush pads occupied by their consuls general past, instead of renting. This is not the first time they have accommodated their CG in Hong Kong’s most expensive piece of real estate. In the early 2000s the much-missed polyglot, raconteur, wit and British consul general Sir James Hodge and his wife Frances lived in the Albany, then the territory’s priciest.    

Had the British government had the common sense then to buy that apartment, they would be laughing now. For reasons that were never explained, the next CG, Stephen Bradley was put up in a rather tasteful colonial house on the south side, which was no doubt expensive but not ostentatiously so. The last CG, Andrew Seaton, lived on Mount Kellet Road on The Peak,  in a place that apparently cost about half the Opus rent. The big question here is why was the chance for a great financial investment missed all those years ago? Instead the FCO has stuck the  British taxpayer with a vast bill which many people don’t feel like paying.

It's not Ms Wilson's fault, she probably had no choice in the matter, and had she been asked, she probably would have said she preferred somewhere a bit more central and a more-user friendly flat. Not only does she have to contend with the lower Stubbs Road perma traffic jam, but she has to try and furnish that peculiar space. One leading interior desinger told me the chief reason that most of the Opus units have stood empty for nearly a year is that their weirdly angled shapes are very tricky to furnish. This is what happens all too often when you employ a trendy designer. It's the triumph of form over function andit can prove very expensive for all concerned.