Tag Archives: american embassy

America takes flight

On this day when America is in our thoughts, I am returning to the security of their embassy in Grosvenor Square and their proposed move to Battersea south of the river.

In the late 1950s the Duke of Westminster agreed to allow the United  States to demolish the whole of the west side of Grosvenor Square so they could put up the terrible building we see today.

But the siting of the American Embassy led to one of the most bizarre and protracted processes of negotiation ever seen in London.

[T]he Americans have embassies all over the world and in every single case they buy the land first and then build their embassy. They assumed that this would be possible in England so they asked the Duke of Westminster, who owned Grosvenor Square, how much they would have to pay to buy the freehold of the land. What they didn’t know is that the Grosvenor family never sell. Their vast wealth is based precisely on this simple fact: they own three hundred acres of central London including most of Belgravia and Mayfair, not to mention land holdings all over the world. All the houses and offices on this land are leased; their freeholds are never sold.

When the Americans were told they couldn’t buy their land they insisted that was unacceptable and that they would petition Parliament to force the Duke to sell. Questions were asked in Parliament; the Grosvenor family were heavily leaned on but all to no avail.

Then the Duke thought of a good compromise. He told the furious Americans that if they were prepared to return to the Grosvenor family all those lands in the United States stolen after the American War of Independence then he would allow the Americans to buy their site on the west side of Grosvenor Square. The Americans knew when they were beaten (they would have had to give the Duke most of Maine and New York) and being unwilling to hand over land they themselves had stolen from the Indians anyway, they backed down and the Duke of Westminster allowed them a 999-year lease. And that explains why the embassy in London is the only American embassy built on land not owned by the America.

The Embassy building was then constructed in the late 1950s, opening in 1960; it was designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen. It is a nine-story building, of which three are below ground. A large gilded aluminium Bald Eagle with a wingspan of over 11 metres is situated on the roof of the chancery building, making it a recognizable Knowledge of London landmark for Cabbies.

Fast forward to 2009 and the United States Embassy now plan to move from this site because of security concerns. Even though that building is extremely heavily fortified, the Embassy has been refused permission, by Westminster City Council to close surrounding streets as an added precaution to stop the threat of a lorry bomb.

America’s plans are for a new 5-acre embassy site to be located between Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges (completed by 2016), which will be concealed behind a giant mound of earth. But The Mayor wants the boundary wall to be ‘visually permeable’, allowing the 97 metre embassy building to be seen from the road, not blocked by a four-metre concrete wall, as part of the embassy’s tight protection scheme, which includes a 30-metre ‘blast zone’ and a detachment of US marines. Security is so tight that only American based architects are being allowed to design it.

Draft plans have been submitted to Wandsworth Council, which has welcomed the embassy because of the prestige it will add to the borough. The building would be used by 800 staff and attract 1,100 visitors a day. The Americans hope to select an architect by early next year from the shortlist of four, including the 92-year-old designer of the Louvre glass pyramid, I M Pei.

But The Mayor says he is prepared to reject proposals for the £500 million complex in Battersea known as the Iceberg if it breaches his planning vision for the capital.

Mayor Boris, who was born in New York, is also under pressure to force America to pay £3 million in congestion charge fines it owes London before agreeing to the embassy. America has refused to pay the charge since it was launched in 2003, claiming its diplomats are exempt.

Ken Livingstone, Boris’s predecessor, was less than diplomatic when confronting the previous American Ambassador, Robert Tuttle, at his refusal to pay his diplomat’s fines and zone charges, directing his anger at the ‘former used car salesman’ calling Mr Tuttle a “chiselling little crook”.

The man who will now have to steer through the planning application and the negotiation with the Mayor’s office will be Louis Susman, 71, whom Barack Obama recently appointed as his new American ambassador to Britain. Be lucky Mr Susman! The Duke of Westminster wasn’t a pushover and nor is Boris.

As a footnote: A lot has been said of our MP’s expenses of late, particularly of their second home allowances. When the Americans move out of their embassy, all our politicians could apply to have apartments situated inside the most fortified building in London. With only a 10 minute journey to the Palace of Westminster it’s the perfect location. Then we could stop paying these inflated housing allowances to our underemployed Members of Parliament.

Shaggy Dog Story

Shaggy Dog Story

“Sorry Squire, I’m not going South of The River”. I can now say that with impunity after a recent judgment by magistrates in Bolton. Last week they cleared taxi firm boss Mustak Bhuta, accused of discrimination against blind woman, Toni Forest. The court heard that Miss Forest accompanied by her guide dog, was told that the cab firm were not taking her because of hairs from her dog.

[B]ut the court accepted the taxi bosses’ version that two of his drivers on duty had problems in the past, one of which was the dog being unhygienic in licking the gear stick. The remaining available driver was scared of dogs.

So now I have a whole plethora of excuses for refusal; you’ll drop hairs, licking my gear stick (is that a euphuism?), and a phobia of South London.


Lost and Found

“You would lose your head if was not screwed on”, so I was told when young. The same could be said about cabbies’ passengers. A recent survey by Credant Technologies has found that over the last six months, 55,843 mobile phones and 6,193 other devices including laptops were forgotten by London black cab passengers. Thankfully, about 80 per cent of surveyed taxi drivers claimed that owners were reunited with their missing item once found, but having your hand-held device in someone else’s hands still poses a huge security threat for the owner. These devices are usually not owned by the people using them; either they are supplied on contract or owned by their employer, so maybe that’s their excuse for not being so careful.

The same can’t be said for the high profile security breaches by losing data devices left in public areas, to be conveniently reported by the media. Am I being just a touch cynical when I think some of these lapses are helping to destroy the Government’s reassurance that they are safe with our personal data for ID cards?

Apart from the mountain of iPods, drivers have also found a sawn-off shotgun, 12 dead pheasants, two dogs, toilet seats, a casket of funeral ashes and £2,700 in cash in the back of their cabs. If all these were found on the same cab run, I wouldn’t be going south of the River again.

Leaving the Monopoly board

Having shut Grosvenor Square to vehicular traffic for the best part of four months, while installing the most elaborate anti-terrorist devices this side of Iraq, the United States Embassy have now announced it’s moving to Wandsworth.

Did we pay for these elaborate rising bollards, traffic lights, anti car bomb devices, and if so will we get any compensation?

But at least the local residents won’t mourn the passing of the Americans; they cannot get anti terrorist insurance cover for their valuable art collections.

But it won’t look so romantic for the great unwashed to demonstrate in Wandsworth, home of the Arndale Shopping Centre.

All together now:

What Do We Want? America Out!

When Do We Want It? Now