Attempts to reduce the grandeur of the estate have been mooted in Whitehall for more than 20 years, but have made little headway. However, a Foreign Office spokesman last night confirmed that it was looking at the number and location, size and function of its overseas posts, as well as its London headquarters.
On the review team are representatives of the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Number 10 Policy Unit, together with Foreign Office officials and an outsider, Sir Colin Marshall, chairman of British Airways.
The spokesman said that no decisions had yet been taken on closing or selling off embassies, nor did they recognise a figure of pounds 50m, said to be the sum the Treasury is demanding in property savings.
Nevertheless, the scope of the Comprehensive Spending Review being carried out at the Foreign Office will include the review of its overseas posts and London base, and also "examine how the world-wide diplomatic machine can be modernised to meet the challenges of the 21st Century in a way that secures maximum effectiveness, efficiency and value for money".
Whether that includes a review, and sale, of some of the 136 embassy or High Commission buildings, 157 residences occupied by ambassadors or heads of mission, 1,094 other "living quarters", flats and apartments for other mission staff, or 94 "other" pieces of property, including garages, store rooms, or tennis courts, remains to be seen.
It could yet come to a garage sale, but having just moved in, it is unlikely that Mr Cook would be willing to renounce 1 Carlton Gardens, his official London residence, any more than the Lord Chancellor will renounce his newly refurbished apartments in the Lords.
However, the Treasury might yet take a close look at the Foreign Office "accommodation", paid for by the taxpayer, of which there are 71 properties in Washington, 49 in Paris, 47 in Tehran, 38 in Islamabad and Lagos, 36 in Riyadh, 34 in Singapore and Nairobi, 31 in Abu Dhabi, 28 in Lusaka, 27 in Ottawa, 23 in Canberra and Pretoria, and 21 in New York.
There is also a scattering of diplomatic estate apartments in, among other cities, Seattle, San Francisco, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Strasbourg.
The last Labour attempt to tackle the Foreign Office was delivered in June 1977 by a Downing Street think-tank, which argued that much of the FCO's work could not be justified. Its central recommendations were rejected by ministers after a ferocious campaign of resistance from Her Majesty's diplomatic service.
But in spite of a spate of weekend reports that the Treasury was on the warpath against its Foreign Office neighbours, the Treasury's weekend spokesman said the reports of embassy sales were "speculative". Another Whitehall source said the reports were the product of fertile and imaginative minds. "These stories are a bit like Cabinet reshuffles," he said; "they're sexy, but there's never a lot in them."Reuse content