Britain's representation in Europe is to be scaled back dramatically in a restructuring of its embassies and consulates around the world.
The Independent has learnt that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will close up to a dozen consulates in countries including France, Germany, Spain and Italy. New embassies and consulates are planned for South and Central America, plus a big increase in representation in China.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan is a preliminary decision to shut the consulate in Basra, which will bring Britain's involvement in the southern Iraqi city to an end. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is thought to have concluded that the high cost of providing security to the consulate is disproportionate to the benefit it brings Britain – especially now it has no military presence there.
It will fuel concerns that Britain is "abandoning" Iraq on cost grounds and will be badly placed to take advantage of the oil boom in the area. The number of overseas staff at the British Embassy in Baghdad has already dropped by about 30 per cent.
But it is Britain's consulates in Europe which are to take the brunt of the cutbacks. At present there are seven in Italy – including honorary consuls in Bari, Cagliari and Catania – six in Spain, four in Germany and three in France.
Most at risk are those based in expensive property that can be sold off. Certain to close are Venice and Florence, where Britain has had a presence since the 1450s. The consulate in Florence overlooks the River Arno, and that of the honorary consul in Venice also occupies a prime spot in the city.
"Basically, the problem is that it's three people sitting in a fabulous piazza in Venice doing not very much," said a diplomatic source.
Some of the money saved from closing the consulates will go towards the savings the Foreign Office has to make as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. The majority will be reinvested in embassies and consulates in parts of the world where Britain has had no representation previously.
Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are among the countries that could have a British Embassy for the first time. Representation in Brazil is also likely to be increased, with new consulates possible in the industrial Amazon city of Manaus and the ancient port of Salvador.
China is likely to see significant increase in British representation. At present only four Chinese cities have a British envoy, and this is likely to be boosted to include several "second tier" cities.
The changes will be announced during the FCO's leadership conference in London this month, which brings together Britain's most senior ambassadors. A Foreign Office source said: "This is a serious, strategic, and long-overdue exercise to ensure we are where we need to be in a rapidly changing world."
The move may be less than popular with staff, and could also alienate some of Britain's closer neighbours and expatriate communities.
"There have been representatives from the consulate here for almost 600 years," said Father Lawrence MacLean, chaplain of St Mark's English Church in Florence, when the decision was announced there. "It's a great cultural link for the people of Florence who have had a long relationship with the people of Britain. Everyone thinks it's a great sadness that due to so-called economic necessities the place has to close."