LIFE ABROAD – Part 27: LOST OPPORTUNITIES
Posted on May 9th, 2013

Dr. Tilak Fernando

The colossal amount of foreign exchange drain on steep accommodation bills for Sri Lankan diplomatic and ‘home based’ staff sent abroad from the Foreign Ministry had been the subject of discussion for a long time in London. The decision to purchase buildings for government use, as far back as in 1998, was considered as a far-sighted cost effective policy to save the much need foreign exchange for the country.

The late Lakshman Kadirgamar as the Foreign Minister suggested that a treasury allocation of Rs.100 million to the Foreign Ministry be utilised in the purchase of properties abroad to accommodate Foreign Office staff rather than returning the money back to the treasury as ‘unused’ purchases of new property in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Pretoria and Beijing; further attempts to buy more in Mumbai and Berlin indicated that the new concept was gaining ground fast.

The concept of having Sri Lanka’s own living quarters for diplomats surfaced with the experiment in New Delhi. Subsequent to the Indian experience various projects had been formulated but finally many such studies were confined only to a lip service to a greater extent.

Lakshman Kadirgamar

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. Unfortunately due to various administrative and political ping pong dominating the issue, the idea was put back on the shelf except the purchase of an Official Residence for the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in the UK at The Avenue, St. John’s Wood in NW London, with a fair amount of garden space and an additional three bedroom bungalow (used formerly as house keeper’s quarters).

This was considered as a blessing in disguise as the house keeper’s bungalow was refurbished later and used as diplomatic quarters thus saving a considerable amount of foreign exchange drain to UK landlords.

During the late President R Premadasa’s rule the unused basement area at the High Commission building, which was gathering dust for decades, was converted into several flats by a special squad of builders and workers flown from Sri Lanka to London. Although it managed to cut down the rent bill drastically Sri Lankan newspapers highlighted at the time about the London accommodation problem that prevailed quoting a figure of £12,000 (British Pounds) on a monthly basis on house rents alone.

Renting of accommodation in London had always been a nightmare. During this phase the house market in London went through a depression which gave the opportunity for the wise and intelligent to make hay while the sun shone! This would have been an ideal opportunity to put the late Foreign Minister Kadirgamar’s idea into action!

Naivety

The government owning property for diplomatic staff abroad had its other advantages. London was one of the very first destinations to have Sri Lankan offices abroad since her independence in 1948. After decades what Sri Lanka had in terms of an investment in foreign exchange overseas was minimal.

The High Commission operated its bank account with Natwest, (National Westminster Bank) at Praed Street, London W2 while the Bank of Ceylon’s London branch was in the hub of UK’s banking arena for decades. In such a favourable situation the inability to arrange mortgages to buy a few properties in London became inconceivable with the backing of the Central Bank in Colombo!

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 for decades and unwise decisions made by managers 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 once ended up in Colombo where a foreigner who was employed by the bank paying an astronomical amount as his salary took to his heels halfway during the enquiry and left the country.

Safety factors

The Ceylon Tea Centre building at Piccadilly Circus was another asset Sri Lanka lost. ‘Ceylon Tea’ being a worldwide brand name and having our own tea centre in the capital of London (where it was believed that if one were to sell tea at Piccadilly Circus out of a hand cart (Ath Karaththaya) one could have made millions) had to be closed down finally after handing over the lease of the entire building metaphorically speaking “ƒ”¹…”on a plate’ 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, as mentioned in a previous column, went into oblivion due to again various administrative hullabaloo and inefficiencies of the Management (both in London and Sri Lanka).

The selection of a suitable building in Holland Park in West London to shift the High Commission Office from 13 Hyde Park Gardens with a view to bringing all other Sri Lankan Institutions under one roof during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime suffered yet another egoistical diplomatic battle due to personal differences of opinion between the then High Commissioner, the late Tilak Gooneratne and his Deputy, the late Guy Amirthanayagam, both of whom were equally close to Mrs. Bandaranaike.

It is natural that any building or house needs redecorating and/or attending to routine repairs annually over a period of time according to a lease or rent agreement or a mortgage. For this purpose in England there are special building and household insurance schemes where every house “ƒ”¹…”owner’ is advised to become protected. It becomes mandatory especially for those who seek bank loans or mortgages from banks or building societies.

These policies are structured mainly to take the financial strain out of the “ƒ”¹…”owner/occupier’ in case of any kind of major repairs ranging from plumbing, electrical, boiler, heating, water pipe bursts and even to completely rebuild a new house in case of total destruction by fire or floods. The insurance premiums vary according to the size and the value of the property and these policies are planned out so that every house owner can afford to pay such premiums, thus saving them from any unforeseen financial disasters.

Worst Tittle-Tattle

In London news travels faster even than emails at times among the expatriate community. One of the “ƒ”¹…”hot’ scandals that dominated once surrounded the High Commissioner’s residence at St. Johns Wood being abandoned by a new High Commissioner upon assuming duties in London on the premise it was “ƒ”¹…”uninhabitable’ due to immense repairs to be done, followed by her decision to rent a private apartment at a cost of £8,000 Sterling Pounds a month, leaving two “ƒ”¹…”service’ employees only as security at the official residence.

This, naturally was exposed in a national newspaper headlines on a Friday (September 28) revealing further that the original rent which was £ 3,000 had been increased to £ 5,000 and later escalated up to £ 8,000 over a period of time! The amount of money the Sri Lanka High Commission spent on rent alone at the time was exposed as £35,000 Sterling Pounds a month to accommodate 25 or more staff attached to the mission!

In such circumstances it was natural for any observer to criticise such an unnecessary wastage of Sri Lankan taxpayers’ money on rented premises in England with a view to ensuring that the same fate that befell on the Students Centre and Tea Centre did not come to pass again!

The buzzing that took place among the Sri Lankan community in London became infectious on a ‘hidden agenda’ to dispose of this property through a private property developer by convincing and persuading Colombo authorities with the help of a Chartered Surveyor’s reports etc. Finally, the whole scheme backfired from the moment the news reached President Mahinda Rajapaksa who immediately took a stern action and put a stop to such a misdemeanour. No property owner has to lose an arm and leg or pay through the nose to get any house repairs done in the UK if one has a ‘Building Insurance’ which can be arranged with a single telephone call! In this particular incidence it was not clear whether there was already an insurance policy covering the High Commissioner’s building and/or contents in a pigeon hole unknown to officials or simply due to the naivety of the London staff at the time in such matters! The same could have applied to the Students Centre as well!

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid – Albert Einstein

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