Yankee, no home

Observations on the US embassy

At the completion of the magnificent American embassy in the Pariser Platz Berlin last year, the ambassador made a speech. He said: "We could have built it out in the woods somewhere for far less money and with certainly more security, but we made the decision to be right here in the heart of Berlin with the rest of our friends."

So what does the announcement by the US embassy in London that it is seeking new premises signify? Has the special relationship come to this - shutting up shop in Grosvenor Square and shipping out to Isleworth?

No wonder everyone is walking on eggshells. The embassy's spokeswoman referred me to a cautious statement about "pursuing alternatives that could possibly lead to the relocation of embassy London from its current location at 24 Grosvenor Square to provide a modern secure facility for this important mission".

Does this translate as: "We have had it up to here with Lady La Di Da and Mayfair residents, with the Duke of Westminster who screwed us on land, and with Ken Livingstone who described the ambassador as a 'chiselling little crook' over congestion charges"?

The Grosvenor Square embassy has always been culturally troublesome. It is the only US embassy site in the world that is not owned by the United States government. Embassy staff express puzzlement at how Britain remains carved up by dukes, while the Grosvenor Mayfair Residents' Association has proved a fiercer adversary to the administration than anyone in Congress. Staff grow pale at the mention of Countess Anca Vidaeff-Tyoran, who described the embassy as "Checkpoint Charlie". Since the embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983, security rather than design has dictated the feel of the place. Glass must be kept to a minimum. It is hard to exude confidence and curiosity from a bunker.

A spokeswoman for Knight Frank, the estate agent giving strategic advice on the sale of the embassy, declined to discuss the move. However, she did admit, in a gust of enthusiasm, that this was a prime site and that hotels, offices and residential property developers were represented on the advisory group.

Previous ambassadors have looked longingly at the Kensington Palace stretch, but no offers have been forthcoming.

If the embassy does end up "out in the woods somewhere", or even in Greenwich, it will say less about politics than it does about British snobbery and property prices.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.