By Simon Parry
Opulent: The Opus flats are among the world's most expensive
British diplomats have watched the sun set on their famously exotic lifestyles in recent years as grand, colonial-era properties have been sold off and their entertaining expenses cut.
But there is one corner of the former empire where an envoy can still enjoy the high life despite budget cuts – Hong Kong.
In a piece of extravagance that will have ambassadors in less well-funded missions spluttering into their G&Ts, consul-general Caroline Wilson has taken up residence in a breathtakingly opulent £35 million flat.
The property – one of the world’s most expensive – is believed to be costing taxpayers around £60,000 a month in rent.
Cambridge-educated Ms Wilson lives with her domestic staff in the 4,600 sq ft property that occupies the entire third floor of Opus, a new 12-storey block that looks out across the former colony’s Victoria Harbour. Ms Wilson, who is in her 40s, is the first rental tenant in the complex.
Her four-bedroom apartment boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, a marble dining table, artworks from around the world, and commands panoramic views.
The British Consulate in Hong Kong refused to say how much it was paying in rent but a larger duplex flat in Opus was provisionally let for more than £70,000 a month in December before the tenant withdrew.
A consulate spokesman defended the spending, saying that the apartment was used regularly for diplomatic functions attended by hundreds of people, and that eight official guests, including two Ministers, had stayed there since April.
Ms Wilson, a former barrister, took over as consul-general last October after a four-year stint as a trade envoy in Moscow. Her predecessor Andrew Seaton lived in comparatively modest quarters in Mount Kellett Road where apartments can be rented for between £20,000 and £30,000 a month.
Idyllic: This internet grab shows the stunning location of the flats in the exclusive hilltop neighbourhood The Peak
High-flyer: Consul-general Caroline Wilson greets member of the British Lions at her flat last week
Futuristic: An interior at the block of flats show the exquisite design
The decision to let Ms Wilson live in a complex more suited to billionaires and pop stars has raised eyebrows among even the most jingoistic members of the city’s 30,000-strong expatriate community.
Caroline Wilson is not the only civil servant living in the lap of luxury – millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent on housing staff working overseas.
The Department for International Development (DfID) lavished more than £20.7 million on rent for staff based abroad in only two years.
Workers in Kenya were put up in the plush Yaya Towers, which boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool and tennis courts. A one-bedroom flat there costs £580 a week to rent.
The total spent on accommodation between January 2011 and February this year works out at an average of £1,600 a month for each of the 530 DfID aid workers based overseas.
Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘Questions should be asked as to whether we are getting value for money.’
One veteran member of the British Chamber of Commerce said: ‘Caroline’s a very smart lady and she’s doing a first-rate job for British trade out here – but we were all a bit taken aback when we heard she was taking a floor of Opus as her home.
No Briton has lived in this much style in Hong Kong since the last Governor, Chris Patten, checked out.’
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had its budget cut from £1.6 billion to £1.36 billion over the life of the current parliament.
However, Hong Kong is among the better-funded overseas missions because of the importance of Britain’s trade links with China.
Ms Wilson declined requests to speak to The Mail on Sunday about her new home and a spokeswoman for the British Consulate in Hong Kong would not disclose the cost of renting the property, or the cost of Mr Seaton’s residence.
She added: ‘The cost is subject to a commercial confidentiality agreement with the landlord.’
Developer Swire Properties also refused to divulge the rent or say if it had offered the British Consulate any discount.