Hanson close to capping liabilities

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HANSON, the building materials group, yesterday said it was close to capping the environmental liabilities which are a legacy of its days as part of Lord Hanson's once-proud conglomerate. Hanson also expects to spend up to pounds 500m on acquisitions after coming near to completing a huge restructuring and disposal programme.

When Hanson acquired Beazer, the construction group, in 1991, it inherited huge environmental liabilities. These stemmed from a series of legal actions, initiated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local residents after it became clear that the chemicals division Koppers, a group that Beazer acquired in 1988, was responsible for contaminating water supplies. The threat of litigation has hung over the group ever since.

After intensive discussions with the EPA, Hanson announced yesterday that it was writing down the value of the provision to cover future liabilities by pounds 430m to pounds 404m due to the diminished threat of legal claims. At its peak this provision had stood at $2bn (pounds 1.2m).

Hanson is now in talks with a number of insurance companies which could lead to the eventual "ring-fencing" of the remaining liabilities. Under such a scheme it would pay out an initial lump sum and annual premiums.

Meanwhile Hanson is near to selling its US Grove Crane business to a US buyer for around pounds 350m. The group hopes to raise another pounds 150m from the sale of Spectrum, its American construction business.

Sweden's Skanska AB is thought to be looking to buy the construction side of Spectrum while France's Colas is interested in the road building operations. It is also looking to sell some its UK property interests and Air Hanson, which operates Britain's largest fleet of executive jets and helicopters.

The proceeds from these disposals will be spent on a series of US acquisitions. Hanson is also keen to increase the size of its building business on the Continent and is looking to expand particularly in Central Europe.

Hanson announced an 8 per cent rise in underlying pre-tax profits to pounds 224.7m. The group said it was confident that housing starts would pick up in the next few months, with the market remaining strong.

That should lead to a 4-to-5 per cent rise in the price of building materials. Prospects for the US market also look encouraging with the US Congress due to increase spending on infrastructure. Hanson's shares were unchanged yesterday at 323p.