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UK defends buying £12m New York penthouse for diplomat

London

THE British Foreign Office on Wednesday defended spending £12 million (S$21.4 million) to buy an apartment for a diplomat in New York as "the best possible deal and value for money" and a way to promote Britain's business interests in the city.

The British government bought the property, a full-floor penthouse on the 38th level of 50 United Nations Plaza, a 43-storey condominium building that is a stone's throw from the UN headquarters on the East Side of Manhattan.

It will be home to Antony Phillipson, the British consul general in New York and a former British High Commissioner to Singapore.

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He is also Britain's trade commissioner for North America, responsible for strengthening the bilateral trade relationship between Britain and the US, among other duties.

The price of the apartment did not sit well with some in Britain, who accused the government of wasteful spending while the country was still experiencing the hardships of austerity.

The tabloid newspaper The Sun described the property as a "pencil-pusher paradise".

"The government could afford a £12 million grace-and-favour penthouse in New York, but couldn't spend money to rehouse Grenfell survivors," Umaar Kazmi, a law student at the University of Nottingham, said on Twitter on Wednesday, referring to the 2017 fire at a high-rise building in London that killed more than 70 people.

"As ever, the government shows that these things are not a matter of cost, they are a matter of political priorities," he added.

Nearly a decade of government austerity has had a profound effect on British society, slashing budgets for policing, housing and welfare.

A UN expert said late last year that efforts by the Conservative-led government to cut state spending were "entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world".

Christopher Phillips, a professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London, called the purchase "yet another example of the ridiculousness of Brexit".

"The UK has had to sell off many of its grander foreign properties to balance the books during austerity; and now splashes out on this penthouse to win previously unnecessary trade deals," he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said it was in the process of selling Mr Phillipson's current residence, which is near the British Consulate on Second Avenue. He confirmed that the sale had closed on March 15.

"As well as being the consul general's residence, it will also be used to support his work to help British businesses" as trade commissioner for North America, he added.

Zeckendorf Development and Global Holdings, the developers of 50 United Nations Plaza, confirmed the sale in an e-mail on Wednesday.

The building - which also has a swimming pool, a garage, and a fitness center - was completed in 2014. It is on First Avenue between East 46th and East 47th Streets and was designed by the London architects Foster & Partners.

Mr Phillipson's 5,893 square foot penthouse has seven bedrooms, including two for household staff; six bathrooms; a powder room; three walk-in closets; and a library, according to the floor plan.

In a review of 50 United Nations Plaza on the website CityRealty, Carter Horsley, a former real estate writer for The New York Times, described it as "a glittering sceptre for modern pharaohs who demand spectacular sunrises". NYTIMES