British embassy sell-off

The British embassy’s 23-rai site on Wireless Road in Bangkok’s premier real estate area is about to be offered for sale.  According to informed sources in the property industry, the embassy is sounding out developer interest through CBRE Thailand.  The total value of the nine acre plot, assuming a selling price of around 2 million baht per square wah, will be at least 18 billion baht.

sep-16-fpEmbassy spokespersons won’t confirm the sale but significantly don’t deny the speculation.  The embassy press office simply said the valuable estate was under constant review to ensure the interests of the British tax payer are protected.  Only large developers or those with giant overseas partners will be seriously interested in a building bonanza which could well turn out to be a joint-use condominium, hotel and upscale mall and leisure complex of titanic proportions. The new mega-complex Terminal 21, now under construction in North Pattaya, is roughly the same size.

This is not the first time land at the British embassy site has been put up for sale.  A four-acre frontage located at the intersection of Wireless and Ploenchit roads was sold in 2006 to Tiang Chirathivat Real Estate which was part of Central Group.  At the time the sale was said to be one of Thailand’s largest property sales but the prices for Bangkok’s prime real estate have surged in the last 10 years.  The embassy was established at its current site in 1922 and originally featured a number of buildings including the ambassador’s residence, tropical gardens and a renowned statue of Queen Victoria which had to be covered up during the Japanese occupation of the early 1940s.

Although the news of the most recent proposed sale has attracted some protests that the British government is undermining its prestige and importance, the lure of 18 billion baht or 400 million pounds is obviously irresistible in a country with a balance of payments problem.  It is not currently known where the embassy would move to, or indeed if it needs to.  Much of the work of the embassy is now done in rented offices at Trendy House, Sukhumvit 13, which handles all visa applications to UK as well as being the calling point for UK nationals wanting to obtain or renew their British passport.

  In reality, the powers of embassies worldwide have been whittled down over the past 10 years.  For example, British passports are now actually produced only in UK.  The role of the Bangkok embassy is simply to check the paperwork before forwarding the documentation to UK.  Some visa applications are scrutinized and approved in London with some initial procedures already privatized to outside agencies.  These changes have left the British embassy principally responsible for trade and industry matters and consular services.  But even consular work has become more restrictive with less reliance on front-line services and more emphasis on reading and acting on information available on websites and Facebook.

These trends are also reflected in the closure of all British consular offices in provincial Thailand.  The base in Chiang Mai was closed in 2015 and the one in Pattaya, opened in 2009, survived barely three years before being axed.  Although there are British honorary consuls serving in several provincial cities and towns which are popular with tourists, the officers who receive a small gratuity are very restricted in what they can and cannot do.  One told Pattaya Today he acted only on the instructions of superiors in Bangkok and was not authorized to advertise any local services.

One staff member of the Bangkok embassy, who declined to be named as he has not authorized to speak on the matter, told Pattaya Today, “The selling-off of the rest of the embassy in Wireless Road is a foregone conclusion and will likely occur next year.  There is certainly no need for such elaborate premises as the number of British expats in Thailand declines and diplomatic services continues to shrink.”  He added that, in a post-Brexit world, the Wireless Road complex might be replaced by a rented house for the ambassador and expanded use of office space such as Trendy House already offers.

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