Saturday, May 05, 2007


Despite objections by his neighbours, Prime Minster Tony Blair this week got permission from Westminster City Council to redevelop his retirement home in Connaught Square.
Blair’s plans to knock his £3.65 million house and the £800,000 mews property he recently bought at the back of it into one have caused consternation among residents.
They fear that he might hold ‘disruptive’ parties on a planned roof terrace and cause a ‘nuisance’ in summer. They also object to the prospect of smells from barbecues, slam his intended solar panels as nothing but a ‘fashion accessory’ and fear security measures to protect him might disturb the peace of the square.
Though people who attended a recent meeting of the Hyde Park Residents Association at which his lawyer wife, Cherie, appeared, describe her as ‘not nearly as bad as expected,’ the question which remains on their lips is: why did they have to come here?
Though Westminster City Council is Conservative controlled, they obviously felt they could not refuse a soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister, even if some of his terrible friends might disturb the peace.
Perhaps they felt intimidated. Or took the view that there could be no better base for an ex-Prime Minister who reportedly plans a global role, combining an envoy’s job in the Middle East and Africa with a string of non-executive directorships and multi-million pound book and American lecture circuit deals.
The House in Connaught Square sounds like the title of a Henry James novel or one in an historical family series by a modern saga writer.
Despite its location just behind the Arab Quarter in the Edgware Road and closeness to the hub of Oxford Street (made even busier by the recent opening of Primark at Marble Arch), the Georgian square exudes the tranquillity of a bygone age.
Centuries-old plane trees gracefully drape their branches over the gardens where residents and their families hold summer garden parties and, despite showbiz and media people being among them, the atmosphere is quiet and conservative.
But Connaught Square will not be as pleasant once the Blairs move in. This peaceful oasis will become a front line fortress in the ‘war on terror’ in which Blair has played such a leading role.
There is word that a security gate will be erected at the entrance to the mews in which the second house is situated and through traffic may be banned from the square.
But perhaps the presence of the Blairs may inspire a 21st century saga or soap opera called The House In Connaught Square.
Ask any ordinary Briton who has ever faced problems abroad about the help they got from the British embassy and they will answer zilch.
The campaign for the release of Alan Johnson, the BBC correspondent in Gaza, has been led by his employers, not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The one time they acted quickly was when some of their own vanished in Ethiopia earlier this year.
The prompt arrival of the ambassador to Portugal, John Buck, on the Algarve to assist the parents of the kidnapped three-year-old Madeleine McCann is something new.
Let’s hope it marks a change in attitude towards the people the FCO are supposed to look out for and help in foreign parts. Copyright © Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved