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Chief executive of company led by controversial housebuilding boss Jeff Fairburn is leaving less than a year after his takeover










The chief executive of a company led by controversial housebuilding boss Jeff Fairburn is leaving less than a year after his takeover, The Mail on Sunday can reveal

Mark Mitchell has resigned from his role running Northern builder Avant Homes, which was bought by Fairburn’s Berkeley DeVeer with backing from powerful US hedge fund Elliott. 

Fairburn was ousted from Persimmon in 2018 after a furore over his £75million bonus, which was aided by the Government’s Help to Buy scheme. 

Leaving: Mark Mitchell has resigned from his role running Northern builder Avant Homes

Leaving: Mark Mitchell has resigned from his role running Northern builder Avant Homes

Last month, the MoS reported that Avant had lost seven directors since the takeover. 

Fairburn became chairman at Avant on completion of the deal in April, with Mitchell stepping up from chief operating officer. 

Former Avant boss Colin Lewis, who retired, later voiced fears that Fairburn would strip higher specification features from Avant’s new homes, ‘dumbing down’ the brand. 

Mitchell, 41, will leave this month after 21 years with the business.

He began his career as a trainee quantity surveyor at Henry Boot Homes, before moving to Ben Bailey Homes. He rose to the role of commercial director before the business was sold to what is now Avant Homes. He was made managing director at just 27. 

Elliott has taken a stake in Avant rival Taylor Wimpey and is pushing for the builder to replace outgoing chief Pete Redfern with an external candidate. 

Avant thanked Mitchell for his service, adding: ‘We wish him well for the future.’ 

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When it comes to investing, in recent years, more have chosen to go down an ethical and sustainable route, either full hog or partially. 

Some argue that with the future of the planet at stake, investors who profit from the companies hurtling us towards a potential climate catastrophe are being morally and socially irresponsible.

Shareholders choose to invest in a company usually because they see its potential to grow their wealth and/or to pay an income.

But increasingly, investors base their decisions also on whether the company they’re investing in is having a positive impact on the planet – companies that adhere to environmental, social and governance criteria, and also grow wealth and income.

ESG issues are of increasing importance for the majority, with nearly three quarters of Britons concerned about environmental issues, according to recent research.

ESG issues are of increasing importance for the majority, with nearly three quarters of Britons concerned about environmental issues, according to recent research.

It is still a relatively grey area, with ESG ratings increasingly under scrutiny from investors who want to lift the bonnet and poke around. 

ESG issues are now of far more importance to investors, according to research carried out by Aegon UK

Nearly three quarters are concerned about environmental issues, three in five worry about equality, and two thirds have concerns about poor corporate governance practices

Another study by EQ found that two-thirds of investors aged under 40 consider a company’s goals, mission and purpose when they make their decision, with four in five feeling frustrated when they see companies behaving in a way they deem unethical.

The obvious solution for these socially and environmentally conscious investors is to shun the companies that go against ESG criteria and favour those they perceive to adhere to it.

However, one small band of activist investors disagree with this approach, instead believing that the best way to save the planet is to invest in the very companies supposedly destroying it.

Follow This aims to encourage shareholder support for oil companies to commit to the Paris Agreement.

Follow This aims to encourage shareholder support for oil companies to commit to the Paris Agreement.

Follow This encourages people to buy shares in an energy company such as BP or Shell, with the organisation filing and voting on climate target shareholder resolutions and speaking at AGM’s on behalf of its members.

It particularly aims to encourage large shareholders such as pension funds and investment companies to vote for its climate resolutions. 

It also encourages individual investors to buy shares in their own names so they have the right to vote on their fossil fuel reduction policies in support of achieving the Paris Agreement. 

The Paris Agreement aimed to limit the rise in global temperatures in this century to between 1.5 and 2 degrees celsius above pre industrial levels (1850-1900).

To put that in context, human, induced warming reached 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels in 2017, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In December 2015, 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, the central aim of which includes pursuing efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

In December 2015, 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, the central aim of which includes pursuing efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Dutch campaigner and founder of Follow This, Mark van Baal, set up the organisation when he realised that the oil companies would be more influenced by their shareholders than by pressure in the media or from climate activists.

‘I knew that one small shareholder can change the course of a company,’ he says, ‘the thinking was, if you can buy enough shares to submit a resolution to the shareholders’ meeting, then I will only have to convince the other shareholders.’ 

Submitting a resolution to Shell required at least 5million euros in shares, so in 2015 he achieved a consensus between some large shareholders, convinced others to contribute by launching a website where anyone could buy a share and pulled together enough voting rights to submit a resolution for the first time at the 2016 shareholders’ meeting.

He says: ‘We are convinced that we need big oil to stop climate change to have any chance of making sure our children and grandchildren don’t end up in a world devastated by it.

‘Fossil fuels are responsible for more than half of the emissions worldwide, so if we have any chance of reaching the Paris Climate Agreement, we need to slash emissions and shift to renewables. The big oil companies have a crucial part to play in this.

‘We need them to shift investments from fossil fuels to renewables because they have the money, the brains, the political power and the international reach to speed up the energy transition.

‘We understand it’s quite counterintuitive to buy shares in big oil, thereby owning a stake in the most polluting companies in the world, but we believe this is a crucial part of the fight against climate change.’

Van Baal believes this transformation won’t just happen because one of the big oil executives suddenly ‘wakes up with an epiphany one morning’ having spent 30 years working their way to the top of the corporate ladder.

But he believes he has found a way to influence their decisions – by encouraging investors to become shareholders and as shareholders to influence big oil companies from within.

Follow This began with just a few hundred investors and now has roughly 7,000 signed up.

Most of its investors are based in the Netherlands, but there are small pockets based in the UK and in other countries.

‘Similar to many people, I have often felt powerless about climate change,’ says Van Baal, ‘I can put solar panels on my roof, I can take the train to work instead of driving, and I can stop eating meat – but none of that makes any difference on a global scale and I think most people feel powerless.

‘By buying shares in companies that really can make a difference, we empower ordinary citizens to make big changes.

‘We have given investors a new tool that nobody was previously using and we used British law to file resolutions at Shell’s shareholder meetings, which forced them to put it on the agenda.’ 

Van Baal came to the conclusion that oil companies won't listen to journalists, nor to activist groups, nor to governments. He said: 'The only ones who can convince Shell to choose another course are its shareholders.'

Van Baal came to the conclusion that oil companies won’t listen to journalists, nor to activist groups, nor to governments. He said: ‘The only ones who can convince Shell to choose another course are its shareholders.’

Is it working?

Without such action, Van Baal is convinced big oil companies would continue to find excuses not to confront climate change.

‘Previously big oil companies would make excuses by claiming their policy decisions were down to consumer choices, or the government, or regulation and that it wasn’t their responsibility,’ he says.

‘Now everything Shell and BP announce on renewables, or on climate change, is thanks to the investors who vote for our resolutions – it’s because we put it on the agenda.’

Shell has outlined plans for a net zero future but research by Global Climate Insights suggests Shell’s absolute emissions will rise by 12 per cent between 2019 and 2030.

BP has also outlined plans for a net zero future but its current strategy stands to increase total emissions according to Van Baal.

Both BP and Shell have outlined plans for a net zero future but Van Baal claims that both their current stategies stand to increase total emissions by 2030

‘We make it very transparent that the big oil companies do not want to adhere to the Paris Agreement, whilst also making it clear that more and more investors want them to commit to do so.’  

Over the past two years, Follow This filed shareholder resolutions at companies including Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Equinor and Phillips 66 to try and compel each company to set emissions targets in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

In May this year, one of its most successful resolutions, calling for carbon emissions reduction targets, secured support from 30 per cent of the shareholders at Shell. 

Shareholder votes for Climate Resolutions in Europe have been rising.

Shareholder votes for Climate Resolutions in Europe have been rising.

This represented a significant rise compared to May 2020 when 14.4 per cent of shareholders voted for the Follow This climate targets. In 2019, only 5.5 per cent of shareholders had voted in favour.

However, despite the achievements to date, there is still considerable work to be done, according to Van Baal. 

BP itself expects the absolute level of emissions to grow between now and 2030, even as the carbon intensity falls, whilst research by Global Climate Insights suggests Shell’s absolute emissions will rise on average by 1.1 per cent a year until 2030.

US shareholder votes in favour of the Follow This climate targets reached historical majorities, according to Van Baal.

US shareholder votes in favour of the Follow This climate targets reached historical majorities, according to Van Baal.

Van Baal adds: ‘In the past year an unprecedented number of shareholders voted in favour of the Follow This Climate Resolutions; in Europe, votes more than doubled for the third time; votes more than doubled for the third time; and in the US votes reached historical majorities.

‘These major milestones would not have been possible without the growing number of investors that refuse to settle for company-issued disclosures, but insist on science-based emission reduction targets by voting for climate target resolutions.

‘So far, five oil majors have reluctantly set targets to reduce product emissions after shareholders’ votes, yet all fall short of Paris-consistency.

‘In 2022, voting must compel oil majors to set Paris-consistent targets; targets that lead to deep cuts in absolute emissions by 2030.’

How does shareholder power work?

While shareholders collectively own a company, it’s the executive team and board who hold the day-to-day power.

They decide what dividends to pay, what strategy to follow and how to shape the company’s ethos.

But for a brief window every year, shareholders are given the tools to exercise control.

When UK-listed companies hold an annual general meeting and an annual vote, every shareholder from the biggest pension fund to the smallest individual investor has a right to have their voice heard.

Although the votes on climate resolutions are non-binding, they do still show the growing investor pressure on the management of major energy giants to intensify efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Although the votes on climate resolutions are non-binding, they do still show the growing investor pressure on the management of major energy giants to intensify efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Helge Lund, chairman of BP, says: ‘At BP, we never forget who owns the company. The board I lead knows that to succeed, we must listen to our shareholders – as well as all our other stakeholders including customers, employees and society.

‘As a greening company navigating the energy transition, BP needs the support and challenge that only engaged shareholders can provide.

‘That’s why it’s really important to us that we routinely meet with our shareholders, and we encourage them to use their votes to shape our company’s future.’

A person’s vote and participation could help influence executive pay, whether directors are reappointed, and of course a company’s climate change policy.

Greg Kearney, responsible investment analyst at Quilter Cheviot, said: ‘Most general meeting agenda items are related to governance issues, including the approval of remuneration, director elections and capital structure issues.

‘But we’re seeing more and more shareholder proposals relating to environmental and social issues being included on general meeting agendas.

‘These tend to relate to disclosures, including the setting of carbon reduction targets, disclosing emissions or reporting on company diversity.’

How can investors vote?

Investors don’t necessarily need to rely on activist organisations such as Follow This to make their voices heard within companies such as Shell and BP.

All investors should in theory be able to vote themselves, either in person, via a stock broker, or through an investment platform.

Investing platforms such as Hargreaves Lansdown and AJ Bell have encouraged many more people to dip their toe into investing over recent years.

But these companies also somewhat inhibit their customers’ abilities to vote on key issues impacting the futures of the companies they are invested in.

This is because, if you own shares via an online platform, you may not automatically get a say on important company decisions because your shares are held in a nominee account, meaning that shares are held on your behalf but not registered with the company in your name.

Shares that investors have with investment platforms are often held in a nominee account – this means that shares are held on the investor's behalf.

Shares that investors have with investment platforms are often held in a nominee account – this means that shares are held on the investor’s behalf.

Investors who hold shares via nominee accounts are not the registered owner on the relevant company shareholder list and therefore do not automatically enjoy the voting rights which accompany registered ownership.

The law provides for ‘information rights’ for beneficial owners, but it is the choice of the nominee as to how these are provided, and, although platforms do make provision for investors to exercise their votes, it is clear that many investors on these trading platforms are unaware.

Typically, only around 0.5 per cent of clients exercise their voting rights at UK-based AGMs, according to Hargreaves Lansdown.

It says those wishing to vote can do so for free by giving it their instruction online or over the phone, and it will forward it to the company or its registrar.

Similarly, AJ Bell Investors who want to vote in an AGM or EGM of a company need to log into their account, head to the ‘Corporate Actions’ section where they can read all the relevant documentation before voting in the same part of the website.

Once their vote is submitted online, AJ Bell collates all the votes and sends them onto the company before the deadline.

I hold shares on an online platform and want to take part in a controversial vote

A financial industry expert explains how to exercise your right to vote here.

The investing platform says that to ensure investors are aware of any corporate voting event, it sends an email notification when the event is ready to consider and vote upon.

However, there are signs that the voting process is becoming even more streamlined and simple for investors.

The investment platform, Interactive Investor, recently made being able to vote at company annual general meetings, and other voting events, the default setting for its customers, 

Previously, investors had to opt-in to use the platform’s voting capability in their online account.

Interactive Investor customers will now be notified when they are eligible to place a vote via its ‘voting mailbox’ service online, as well as being notified of shareholder meetings, such as AGMs.

This means that, whereas in the first half of 2021, just under a fifth of Interactive Investor’s 400,000 customers were registered to vote on the investment platform, the facility has now been switched on across the board as the default option.

Richard Wilson, chief executive officer of interactive investor, says: ‘This is not just a step change for interactive investor’s hundreds of thousands of customers, but, we hope, the start of a tipping point in the wider platform industry, through which millions invest – including through pensions and ISAs.

‘Shareholder democracy and engagement shouldn’t be inhibited by red tape or time-consuming bureaucracy – especially in today’s world where technology provides simple, time-saving solutions.

‘By making the ability to vote online the default for shareholders, we hope to increase the popularity of another aspect of investing that is valuable and important. The ability to vote simply and easily should become the new normal.’

The IPCC claims that if the current warming rate continues, the world would reach human-induced global warming of 1.5°C around 2040 when compared to pre-industrial times.

The IPCC claims that if the current warming rate continues, the world would reach human-induced global warming of 1.5°C around 2040 when compared to pre-industrial times.

Whilst many investors will continue to shun big oil companies, or those that profit from arms or tobacco, they are unknowingly forfeiting their ability to bring about change. 

Laura Suter, head of personal finance at AJ Bell says: ‘Some people think that the best way to invest ethically is to avoid any company that doesn’t comply with their set of morals.

‘However, there’s another camp of investors who think that it’s better to have a seat at the table – and a vote at the AGM – and agitate for change from the inside.

‘If you don’t invest in a company, you don’t have any say at AGMs or any ability to vote against policies.

‘For each individual shareholder it might seem like you can’t have much impact, but the collective power of shareholders is what makes a difference.

‘What’s more, increasingly more and more fund managers and institutional investors who hold a large number of shares are voting for environmental, social or governance change at AGMs too, adding power to individual investors’ voices.’

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At the top of the website for New York hotel The Mark – of Meghan Markle babyshower-venue fame – is a rolling tickertape of praise from various esteemed publications. But there’s no mention of the ensuite showers.

There should be.

Mine is a world-beater, a torrent-issuing marvel that’s the most powerful I’ve ever stood under, with superbly chunky industrial-chic polished-nickel fittings by renowned British firm Lefroy Brooks.

The Mark is housed in a 1927 building at the corner of Madison Avenue and 77th Street - and anybody who's anybody has stayed there

The Mark is housed in a 1927 building at the corner of Madison Avenue and 77th Street – and anybody who’s anybody has stayed there

Meghan Markle is pictured leaving The Mark Hotel following her baby shower there on February 20, 2019

Meghan Markle is pictured leaving The Mark Hotel following her baby shower there on February 20, 2019

Meghan Markle's babyshower took place in the ultra-swanky penthouse at The Mark, which costs $75,000 a night

Meghan Markle’s babyshower took place in the ultra-swanky penthouse at The Mark, which costs $75,000 a night

The Mark Penthouse is thought to be the most expensive per-night hotel room in the U.S

Spectacular views of New York come as standard at The Mark Penthouse

The Mark Penthouse is thought to be the most expensive per-night hotel room in the U.S. Spectacular views of New York come as standard

My room, a ‘Seventy Seven King Guestroom’, is 18 tiers beneath the Upper East Side hotel’s top-ranking accommodation, The Mark Penthouse, where Meghan and her famous chums hung out in 2019. This is thought to be the most expensive per-night hotel room in the U.S, with a daily tariff of $75,000 (£56,000).

And while the starting price for mine – one of 106 – for a night is vastly more affordable at around $1,025 (£750) a night if you book well in advance, it’s still not cheap.

But you are definitely getting what you pay for – and that’s sheer class.

Legendary French designer Jacques Grange is the creative force behind the interiors at The Mark and in the rest of the bathroom he’s given me a vast bathtub and double washbasins smothered in marble and a striking geometric black-and-white floor.

The main bedroom is the last word in understated elegance, a soothing medley of ebony, sycamore and Italian linens.

Ted stays in a Seventy Seven King Guestroom, pictured - 'the last word in understated elegance'

Ted stays in a Seventy Seven King Guestroom, pictured – ‘the last word in understated elegance’

Striking geometric black-and-white floors are a trademark of the decor at The Mark

Striking geometric black-and-white floors are a trademark of the decor at The Mark

Ted describes his ensuite shower, pictured, as 'a world-beater, a torrent-issuing marvel'

Ted describes his ensuite shower, pictured, as ‘a world-beater, a torrent-issuing marvel’

The bed is next-level comfy and the cupboard that opens out into a mini bar is an exquisite touch.

The aesthetics in the lobby, meanwhile, soar to bold new Instagram-baiting, celebrity-luring levels.

Other famous faces seen at The Mark – sometimes when in its guise as an A-lister hang-out for the nearby Met Gala – include Kim Kardashian West, Selena Gomez, Kendall Jenner, Kerry Washington, Emma Watson, Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, Oprah Winfrey, Pharrell Williams, Diddy, Kendall Jenner and Jennifer Lopez.

They wouldn’t turn up if they didn’t have an arresting background to be papped against. 

The aesthetics in the lobby soar to bold new Instagram-baiting, celebrity-luring levels

The aesthetics in the lobby soar to bold new Instagram-baiting, celebrity-luring levels

Selena Gomez leaving The Mark for the 2017 'Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between' Met Gala on May 1, 2017

Kendall Jenner leaves The Mark for the Met Gala on May 7, 2018

Pictured left is Selena Gomez leaving The Mark for the 2017 ‘Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between’ Met Gala on May 1, 2017. Pictured right is Kendall Jenner leaving The Mark for the Met Gala on May 7, 2018

leaves from The Mark Hotel for the 2016 "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" Met Gala on May 2, 2016 in New York City.

Amanda Seyfried at The Mark before attending the 2018 Met Gala

On the left is Emma Watson leaving The Mark on May 2, 2016, for the Met Gala, and pictured right is Amanda Seyfried at The Mark before attending the 2018 Met Gala

The vivid geometric black-and-white floor is back, but here, spread over such a large area, it’s even more eye-catching.

There is also a sumptuous red sofa with matching armchairs beneath a mesmerising red-hued minimalist painting and various expensive-looking objects d’art.

It feels like a homely art gallery.

And I’m able to study it at greater length while waiting for my table at the renowned ‘The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges’.

British singer-songwriter Rita Ora leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2018

British singer-songwriter Rita Ora leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2018

Claire Danes leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2018

British action hero Jason Statham with his actress and model partner Rosie Huntington-Whiteley stepping away from The Mark's lavish lobby in 2016

On the left is Claire Danes leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2018, while on the right is British action hero Jason Statham with his actress and model partner Rosie Huntington-Whiteley stepping away from The Mark’s lavish lobby in 2016

Kim Kardashian leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2018

Anna Wintour leaves The Mark in 2016 for the Met Gala

Kim Kardashian leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2018, left, while on the right is Anna Wintour leaving The Mark for the Met Gala in 2016

A bouncer-type is vetting everyone who approaches the doors from the lobby into the bar area – which leads to the restaurant.

I tell him I have a table for one booked at 8pm and he tells me rather ungracefully to stand ‘over there’ (by the sumptuous armchairs) while he ‘tries to find me a spot’.

Bit odd. Usually it’s the restaurant staff who do the spot-finding in a restaurant. Regardless, I’m happy to go along with his demands as it’s a very nice lobby to linger in.

There are three well-dressed women next to me also trying to gain access and one of them is particularly irked about the perceived wait.

The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges, pictured, which Ted describes as seductively opulent. It's here that he tucks into an outrageous salted caramel sundae with popcorn

The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges, pictured, which Ted describes as seductively opulent. It’s here that he tucks into an outrageous salted caramel sundae with popcorn

The Mark bar is one of New York's more distinctive-looking drinking joints

The Mark bar is one of New York’s more distinctive-looking drinking joints

TRAVEL FACTS 

Ted was hosted by The Mark hotel, where rooms start from around $1,025 a night (£775). Visit www.themarkhotel.com. 

Rating:

Aer Lingus flies daily from Manchester to New York, JFK. Economy class fares start from £179 each way and business class fares start from £1,550 return, including taxes and charges. Visit aerlingus.com. 

Business-class throne seat verdict, including service, comfort and food (see review below): 

Rating:

Blacklane chauffeurs  

Ted used the superb Blacklane chauffeur service in New York to transport him between the airport and his hotel. It has a brilliantly user-friendly booking system and operates in more than 200 cities around the world. Visit www.blacklane.com/en.    

Avanti West Coast

One-way fares London to Manchester from £35.90 (£108.80 first class), return from £71.80 (first from £217.60). For more information click here. 

Tests 

For all your antigen and PCR testing requirements visit Qured. See the FCDO website for the latest USA travel guidance.  

She doesn’t seem to be appreciating the extra time she’s been granted to admire Jacques Grange’s eclectic style, then suddenly goes ‘New York’ on the bar/restaurant gatekeeper, telling him forcefully that she is fed up with other people ‘being let in ahead of her group’. And in such a loud voice that another security-guard type is minded to waft over and ask her – politely but firmly – to stop shouting.

‘You think this is shouting? I’ll give you shouting,’ she shouts.

I look around for some popcorn.

As it happens, there’s some on the dessert menu, which I find myself studying before the final act of the lobby drama is played out, having been ushered through to my table for one by a young lady who appears with a clipboard (and an apology for the confusion).

The popcorn comes as part of a salted caramel sundae, which also comprises peanuts and fudge sauce.

Sold (though the ‘plate of cookies’ is tempting).

I wend my way to this Augustus-Gloop-a-licious feast via a refreshing ‘Mark Cocktail’ of prosecco, lychee and raspberry; a pasta and truffle starter and a rip-roaring cheeseburger, accompanied by a knock-out glass of Italian red, a 2016 Barolo by Fontanafredda, chosen by an enthusiastic sommelier who clearly knows his way around the wine list.

This restaurant is one of the hottest tickets in town – but why?

I enjoy the food, but it’s well-executed crowd-pleasing fodder, not Michelin-star Jean-Georges. For that you need to go to the two-star Jean-Georges restaurant in New York that is simply called ‘Jeans-Georges’. 

It is a bit confusing. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, born in Alsace, France, puts his name to 38 restaurants – 19 in New York alone (I’m half-expecting the tap water in the city next time I visit to be ‘by Jean-Georges’). 

The Mark’s Jean-Georges eatery, I suspect, draws the crowds because it matches those appealing, moreish dishes with seductively moody opulence – in the evening it’s just so deliciously dimly lit and luxurious and cosy, and there’s a deluxe bar.

All in all, perfect for a date.

And perfect for a bubbly chinwag with chums.

Everyone around me seems to be having a wonderful time, conversations are flowing, and the waiting staff don’t put a foot wrong.

In the morning, I’m back for the Jean-Georges Vongerichten breakfast experience, which takes place in a beautifully airy part of the restaurant beneath a vaulted glass-panelled roof and next to a copper and glass wine wall.

I snag a banquette seat and linger over coffee, orange juice and scrambled eggs, sausage and a mound of salad leaves (‘seasonal greens’).

A look at The Mark entrance, free of exiting A-listers. The location of the hotel is, Ted says, 'beyond reproach'

A look at The Mark entrance, free of exiting A-listers. The location of the hotel is, Ted says, ‘beyond reproach’

Ted's Jean-Georges Vongerichten breakfast

Ted’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten breakfast

I can’t quite cope with the mound of salad leaves (it’s not a breakfast item in my book), but the rest is great, the table smartly laid out and the service purrs.

Time to explore the neighbourhood.

The Mark’s location is beyond reproach. It’s housed in a beautiful 1927 building at the corner of Madison Avenue and 77th Street, a short walk from The Met, The Guggenheim and The Frick Collection.

Central Park is a few steps away too, and it’s here that I attempt to walk off the breakfast (and the dessert and burger, to level with you).

To be honest, I check out still feeling full. But hungry to return to one of the Big Apple’s most impeccably lavish hotels.

Rating:

Lux of the Irish: Revelling in the majesty of the £1.5k business-class ‘throne’ seat on an Aer Lingus single-aisle A321neo as it makes its debut on the carrier’s new Manchester to New York route

 By Ted Thornhill

Ted is pictured here in one of the 'throne seats' on an Aer Lingus flight from Manchester to JFK Airport

Ted is pictured here in one of the ‘throne seats’ on an Aer Lingus flight from Manchester to JFK Airport 

A private jet from the UK to New York is a financially unobtainable luxury for most. But there is a much more affordable alternative – business class on an Aer Lingus single-aisle Airbus A321neo.

The aircraft recently made its debut on the Irish flag carrier’s new route between Manchester and New York and I was lucky enough to bag a seat on it in business class, discovering that it has a definite private jet vibe – as long as you don’t look behind the curtain into economy.

Snare, as I did, one of the coveted single ‘throne’ berths – they alternate with rows of paired seats – and the experience is elevated to feeling like royalty.

I didn’t feel so princely earlier in the day, though, when my pre-booked ‘executive’ Uber to London Euston (for a train to Manchester) from my flat in the south of the capital arrived at 4.45am for a 5am pick-up, then drove off at 5.01am as I descended the stairs to head out of the door, forcing me to catch a night bus (see boxout for more on this Uber drama).

Still, I arrived at Euston with enough time for a selfie by the concourse Christmas tree before catching the rapid 6.16am Avanti West Coast Pendolino to Manchester Piccadilly.

Fast forward to 9am and I was on an almost-empty train from Piccadilly to Manchester Airport. Fifteen minutes later, I was striding through the hub on the hunt for Terminal 2, where the transatlantic Aer Lingus flights depart.

I found the Aer Lingus check-in desks at the shinier end of the terminal, by rows of self-service screens.

The seats in the single-aisle Aer Lingus A321 business-class cabin are arranged in a 4-2-4 formation

The seats in the single-aisle Aer Lingus A321 business-class cabin are arranged in a 4-2-4 formation

Ted's Aer Lingus A321neo at Manchester Airport

Ted’s Aer Lingus A321neo at Manchester Airport

Here mild panic ensued when the chirpy check-in official asked me for my PCR test certificate. I’d taken an (accepted) antigen test.

He then admitted that he thought they were the same thing.

(I suggest some training on this matter.)

After enduring a tortuous hour-long queue at security (though staff thoughtfully fast-tracked passengers with imminent flights), I made my way to the new 1903 Lounge, which my business-class ticket granted me access to.

It impressed. It’s spacious with plenty of comfy seating, there’s a nicely presented buffet of hot and cold food – including cooked breakfast items and 1833 vintage reserve cheddar from Somerset-based Barber’s, the world’s oldest cheddar-makers – and various alcoholic libations are proffered via eye-catching circular self-service counters. 

The new 1903 Lounge at Manchester Airport, pictured, has floor-to-ceiling windows that afford glorious views of the Terminal 2 taxiway

The new 1903 Lounge at Manchester Airport, pictured, has floor-to-ceiling windows that afford glorious views of the Terminal 2 taxiway

The 1903 Lounge is named after the most important year in aviation history, when the Wright brothers cracked powered flight

The 1903 Lounge is named after the most important year in aviation history, when the Wright brothers cracked powered flight

The lounge is named in honour of the first-ever sustained powered flight on December 17, 1903, achieved by pioneering brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Aviation technology has moved on a wee bit since then, as can be seen through the lounge’s floor-to-ceiling windows, which afford glorious views of the Terminal 2 taxiway and, to the far left, the runway.

I ensconced myself in one of the chic chairs arranged to face them and watched hi-tech A350s, A380s and Dreamliners trundling around – but my Aer Lingus A321neo remained tantalisingly hidden from view at an out-of-sight gate.

ON BOARD 

A plate of sausage, scrambled egg and beans later and I was gazing upon my ride to JFK – a brand-new state-of-the-art long-range Airbus A321neo, which has a 15 per cent reduction in fuel burn compared to a regular A321 and 16 fully lie-flat business-class seats.

I settled into my soothingly green aisle-access throne seat, narrowed my eyes and scanned for niggles.

Barely a blip.

There’s no in-vogue privacy screen, but no matter – the ergonomically designed seat wraps around and cocoons you very nicely indeed. I immediately felt snug and ready for a transatlantic trip to see how New York has been holding up.

Ted declares that his 'ergonomically designed seat [above] wraps around and cocoons you very nicely indeed'

Ted declares that his ‘ergonomically designed seat [above] wraps around and cocoons you very nicely indeed’

The seat's plug points and USB slot

The seat’s plug points and USB slot

It’s not the widest seat on the market but the dimensions were just fine for my 5ft 10in frame – and the legroom was ample. For even the loftiest of travellers.

There are bountiful options, meanwhile, for bespoke adjustments.  

A panel to my left by my elbow that needed a slight twist to access from the upright position had one-touch buttons for three modes – ‘upright’, ‘relax’ and ‘sleep’ – as well as lumber control, pressable up and down arrows for leg-rest manoeuvering, a massage button and an option for turning a mood light on and off.

For minimal hassle while reclined, the seat position can be altered using a separate panel further along the pod wall.

Being uncomfortable was never going to be on the agenda.

A picture taken as Ted's flight passes over Long Island on the descent into JFK Airport

A picture taken as Ted’s flight passes over Long Island on the descent into JFK Airport

Ted's starter for lunch - 'flavoursome prawns, Marie Rose sauce and sun-dried tomato'

The main - 'succulent roast Parmesan chicken breast with steamed spinach, carrots, baby potatoes and wild mushroom sauce'

LEFT: Ted’s starter for lunch – ‘flavoursome prawns, Marie Rose sauce and sun-dried tomato’. RIGHT: The main – ‘succulent roast Parmesan chicken breast with steamed spinach, carrots, baby potatoes and wild mushroom sauce’

This panel is at elbow height when in the upright position

This panel is handy for when the seat is reclined

These images show the control panels for adjusting the seat, with the panel on the left at elbow height when in the upright position and the panel on the right handy for when the seat is reclined 

It's not the widest seat on the market, says Ted, but the dimensions were fine for his 5ft 10in frame - and the legroom ample

It’s not the widest seat on the market, says Ted, but the dimensions were fine for his 5ft 10in frame – and the legroom ample

IS THE AER LINGUS BUSINESS CLASS CABIN A TWO-TIER OFFERING? 

There’s a definite difference between the solo ‘throne’ seats in the Aer Lingus business-class cabin and the paired seats, which have less storage and less privacy.

There is a big divider at head height, but whoever is sitting next to you will be able to see exactly which guilty pleasure movie you’re watching.

And, of course, whoever is by the window has no aisle access.

Having said that, they’re a better option for couples.

On my outward flight a pair of travellers who were split between a throne seat and an aisle seat asked a solo traveller by the window to swap so they could sit side by side.

Note – I didn’t sit in one of the paired seats so these remarks are based on (close) observation alone. 

There are plug points and a USB slot for charging phones and laptops and free Wi-Fi using a discount code the crew dish out that worked well (on the way out, my phone wouldn’t play ball on the way back).

Storage space is generous, with a little cupboard and water-bottle-sized tube to my left, a cubby hole by my right leg and a pull-down pocket in front of me underneath the (excellent) entertainment screen.

In addition, there’s a huge table to the right and a smaller one to the left. More than enough horizontal surface area for all your in-flight flotsam and jetsam – phone, tablet… Champagne glass.

Sadly, there were too many passengers filing through the plane as we boarded for the crew to deploy pre-flight bubbles (this is not a turning left business class), but once we were in the cruise, service got underway and I was, as during any premium cabin experience, unable to resist the fizz.

In this instance, it was a Duval-Leroy Champagne Brut Reserve (£35 retail) made from Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay grapes – and it’s a splendid taste-bud tickler. Refined, lightly citrusy and with a hint of roasted almonds on the palette.

The fizz stage was enhanced by accompanying pecorino, rosemary and seaweed ‘Drinks Biscuits’ by the Drinks Bakery, and onion jam. Delightful.

And so was everything else on the menu.

I loved the starter for lunch – flavoursome prawns, Marie Rose sauce and sun-dried tomato. The main was gratifying too – succulent roast Parmesan chicken breast with steamed spinach, carrots, baby potatoes and wild mushroom sauce.

And the raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake dessert was delectable.

Aer Lingus hadn’t finished feeding me just yet, though – a most inviting afternoon tea arrived about an hour before we landed. As we flew down America’s east coast I tucked into egg and rocket and roast beef sandwiches, plus a trio of delicious mini cakes – lemon and poppy, chocolate opera and Raspberry Bakewell.

The only non-fizz beverage I tried was a Cotes-du-Rhone Domaine Clavel, a perfectly serviceable red – soft and fruity.

You might be forgiven for thinking I ate and drank my way through the entire flight.

Not quite true.

I spent a few minutes examining my amenity kit by Voya, which contained lip balm, hand cream, a toothbrush, earplugs, a pen, flight socks, mints and an eye mask. Not the most luxurious of bags, but usefully re-useable.

The in-flight entertainment system, which fully works from gate to gate, occupied a bigger chunk of my time.

The afternoon tea of egg and rocket and roast beef sandwiches, plus a trio of delicious mini cakes – lemon and poppy, chocolate opera and Raspberry Bakewell

The afternoon tea of egg and rocket and roast beef sandwiches, plus a trio of delicious mini cakes – lemon and poppy, chocolate opera and Raspberry Bakewell

The Aer Lingus lounge by Gate 26 at JFK. Ted liked the raindrop-shaped lights and the grass-effect carpet

The Aer Lingus lounge by Gate 26 at JFK. Ted liked the raindrop-shaped lights and the grass-effect carpet

'There's a definite private jet vibe,' writes Ted, 'as long as you don't look behind the curtain into economy.' He snapped this picture just after he boarded at JFK for the flight home

‘There’s a definite private jet vibe,’ writes Ted, ‘as long as you don’t look behind the curtain into economy.’ He snapped this picture just after he boarded at JFK for the flight home

A salmon main on the flight back to Manchester, served with 'the freshest of fresh salads – plus strawberries'

A salmon main on the flight back to Manchester, served with ‘the freshest of fresh salads – plus strawberries’

Fresh fruit and a hot bacon roll with coffee 'proved a most satisfying breakfast'

The amenity kit, by Voya

LEFT: Fresh fruit and a hot bacon roll with coffee ‘proved a most satisfying breakfast’ RIGHT: The amenity kit, by Voya

The menu page for the mains and desserts

Ted enjoyed afternoon tea around an hour from New York

Pictured left are the options for mains and desserts. Ted enjoyed afternoon tea (right) around an hour from New York

Ted can vouch for the Cotes du Rhones from the red list

The white list offers libations from New Zealand and Spain

Ted can vouch for the Cotes du Rhones from the red list. The white list offers libations from New Zealand and Spain

It was a joy to use – not the biggest in its class but big enough, super-clear and with an intuitive, easily reached touch-screen operating system.

The freebie headphones were one of the blips on the niggle radar – their sound quality was a bit average and they didn’t muffle the cabin noise terribly efficiently. 

Still, they were good enough to facilitate getting completely lost in a movie. Job done.

(Airlines generally seem to skimp on headphones, with American Airlines being one notable exception – its business class passengers get amazing Bang & Olufsen cans.)

There was no danger – at any point – of the crew becoming a blip. 

The pair that crewed the flight were top-notch – friendly, professional, very smartly turned out and eagle-eyed with the Champagne refills.

THE RETURN JOURNEY – AND THE VERDICT

The long-range Airbus A321neo has a 15 per cent reduction in fuel burn compared to a regular A321 and 16 fully lie-flat business-class seats (stock image)

The long-range Airbus A321neo has a 15 per cent reduction in fuel burn compared to a regular A321 and 16 fully lie-flat business-class seats (stock image)

Before boarding the red-eye return leg on the Air Lingus A321neo I popped into the carrier’s lounge, by gate 26, which is pleasingly secretive – beyond an easy-to-miss frosted door.

And inside it’s relaxing and stylish (I liked the raindrop-shaped lights and grass-effect carpet), but there isn’t much on offer by way of food, drinks or views.

There’s just one counter from which one can plunder (tiny) sandwiches, crisps, coffee and various alcoholic drinks.

Wonderfully, on board the aircraft, it was the crew from the flight over and the sky-high standards were maintained.

And this time, mercifully, pre-flight Champagne was dispatched.

Foodwise I thoroughly enjoyed a salmon main with the freshest of fresh salads – plus strawberries. 

And fresh fruit and hot bacon roll with coffee proved a most satisfying breakfast.

The only downside to the journey was that I barely slept a wink. 

The seat is supportive and comes with a soft, luxurious blanket and a plump pillow, but the time difference had wreaked havoc with my body clock and there were too many bumps courtesy of the jetstream for me to drop off.

But it didn’t prevent me concluding that the Aer Lingus A321neo ‘throne seat’ is a dreamy experience, all the more so given the aircraft’s single-aisle dimensions.

Rating:

‘YOU DIDN’T ANSWER YOUR PHONE, SO I CANCELLED THE JOB’: THE PERILS OF BEGINNING YOUR JOURNEY WITH AN UBER (EVEN WHEN IT’S PRE-BOOKED WITH AN ‘EXECUTIVE’ DRIVER)

I fancied making my trip with Aer Lingus to New York fancy from start to finish, so I booked myself an ‘executive’ Uber to pick me up at 5am from my South London abode and take me to London Euston, for a first-class Avanti West Coast Pendolino ride to Manchester Piccadilly, on the 6.16am service.

I’d never booked an ‘executive’ Uber before, but I knew what to expect because I’d read about them on an Uber blog. And I was feeling smug.

The blog says: ‘To help deliver a consistent, quality service, all Exec drivers are expected to maintain a consistent driver rating of 4.9 or higher. Riders using Exec appreciate an elevated service that goes beyond a great car and impeccable manners, so we hope that as an Exec driver, you’ll deliver a service that exceeds rider expectations!’

I had extra peace of mind, because I’d pre-booked the Uber – a week in advance – which the company states would give me 15 minutes of wait time.

A driver had been assigned to the job, so all was well.

But all didn’t go well. At all.

Ted booked a so-called 'executive' Uber, but it left after a call to him from the driver at the pick-up time went unanswered

Ted booked a so-called ‘executive’ Uber, but it left after a call to him from the driver at the pick-up time went unanswered

My driver arrived at 4.45am, 15 minutes early. In a Mercedes-Benz. And he had a five-star rating.

A professional, clearly.

At 5am I was about ready to head out of the door and was doing final checks to ensure I had all my paperwork and so forth when I noticed my phone ringing. I didn’t get to it in time to answer. As it was an unrecognised mobile number I assumed it was the driver.

I didn’t call him back because I was seconds away from leaving my flat.

As I was turning the lights out, though, seconds later, I saw him moving off up the road.

Eh?

I rushed down the stairs with my packed bags and out into the middle of the road – this would be at 5.02 or 5.03am – and frantically waved at him. But he carried on going.

 I got to Euston in time for a selfie by the concourse Christmas tree before boarding the train thanks to the 484 bus to Camberwell, the 176 to Tottenham Court Road and the Northern Line. Thankfully, the drivers didn’t expect me to answer a call from them before letting me on

So then I tried to call the mobile number he used five times, at 5.04am and 5.05am, but I just got an automated text message from Uber telling me ‘sorry, we are not sure who you are trying to message, if you are trying to contact someone on an Uber trip, please ensure that you are sending this message from the phone number associated with your Uber account’.

Next? I ran up the road after him as he’d paused at the end of it.

When I caught up with him he lowered the window. I asked him where he was going.

‘You didn’t answer your phone, so I cancelled the job,’ he said.

I asked him what had happened to my wait time.

‘I waited ages,’ he said. ‘And look, it’s now 5.06am.’

I was supposed to get 15 minutes, not 30 seconds, and from the time I’d booked the job, not from the time he felt like turning up, and so at this point extreme exasperation overcame me.

I asked him if he was going to let me in the car as, ultimately, I had a plane to catch.

‘I’ve cancelled the job now,’ he said.

And with that I literally ran off to catch a night bus, screaming into the crisp chill air exactly what I thought of this driver…

I got to Euston in time for a selfie by the concourse Christmas tree before boarding the train thanks to the 484 bus to Camberwell, the 176 to Tottenham Court Road and the Northern Line. Thankfully, the drivers didn’t expect me to answer a call from them before letting me on.

While on the bus, incidentally, I got a message from another ‘executive’ driver telling me he’d been assigned the job. So apparently it hadn’t been cancelled after all. And as for the first driver’s five-star rating, there was nothing I could do to change that, as you can only rate drivers you’ve had a trip with.

Merry Christmas, Uber! 

An Uber spokesperson said: ‘We are very sorry for your experience. The service you describe is unacceptable and falls well below our usually high standards of customer service. We’ve credited your account with Uber credit in a gesture of good will.’ 

TfL, which licenses Uber, was approached for a comment, but it did not respond. 

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