Hanson to build pounds 500m town

Britain's takeover king plans to turn rubble into riches
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The Independent Online
IT IS hard to credit that Lord Hanson might go down in history as the saviour of the great crested newt, a protected species with a punk- like frill down its back that grows to more than six inches long.

But unless Britain's takeover king clinches one more coup after last year's pounds 2.5bn acquisition of Eastern Electricity, this week's announcement of a pounds 500m new town south of Peterborough may yet be his last big deal.

The move, Europe's largest private development, is due to be announced at the annual meeting this Wednesday. It will be Lord Hanson's last but one appearance before shareholders.

After more than 40 years in the fray, he is due to retire next year at the grand old age of 75, five years later than planned, leaving the mantle with chief executive and heir apparent, Derek Bonham.

Peterborough's new satellite, though, is a direct legacy of 15 years of striking fear in boardrooms on both side of the Atlantic that started with a bid for battery maker Ever Ready at the start of the 1980s.

By the time Hanson snapped up London Brick, owner of the Peterborough site, in a pounds 245m bid in 1984, the group had already started to amass a sizeable property empire by buying United Drapery Stores for pounds 260m the previous year.

Imperial Tobacco, Consolidated Goldfields, Beazer Homes, Peabody Coal and more followed, leaving vast swathes of redundant factories, disused quarries and tracts of land under the wing of its burgeoning property arm, Hanson Properties. Three years ago, way before the Eastern bid, the conglomerate was already reckoned to be Britain's second biggest property group, with assets worth around pounds 4bn.

The Peterborough Southern Township, which is to be ostentatiously renamed on Wednesday, is Hanson's largest ever property project, an enormous swansong in itself.

Covering 2,500 acres of largely derelict land, scabbed with deep waterfilled clay pits - the legacy of London Brick - the development has been 10 years in the making. More than 2 million cubic metres of earth will be shifted in just 383 acres to create developable land.

Hanson will put in pounds 150m over the next 15 years, becoming what James Hopkins, managing director of the town development subsidiary, Hanson Land, terms "an infrastructure management company".

"We're not speculative developers. Peterborough breaks that rule to an extent because it's such a big site. We'll exert control, be the design guide, and run the development brief through joint ventures," he says.

Wednesday will see contracts awarded for the development of a 280,000 sq ft shopping centre at the heart of the town, with 10 units for large retailers. Housebuilding will start in 1997, creating 5,200 homes for 13,000 people. Around 400 acres of land will hold factories and offices, providing jobs for some 12,000 people.

Hanson Land will also help build four primary schools, a secondary school, library, police station, leisure centre and church in Britain's biggest private development since Welwyn Garden City.

Over half the land has been set aside for open space, with a 480-acre country park - which brings us to those rare, but troublesome newts. Last year, the Worldwide Fund for Nature threatened to take English Heritage to the European courts for agreeing a deal with Hanson that would shift 30,000 of them, the UK's largest colony, to their own 296-acre reserve, replete with deep water pits.

The project had started in 1992 with Operation Great Crested Newt, which had staff scooping up bucketfuls by torchlight. Mr Hopkins says Hanson has dished out nearly pounds 4m so far, avoiding more environmentalists' wrath and will have spent another pounds 1m by the end of the operation - a cost of pounds 58 per newt.

Still, Hanson, who is hardly a phil-newt-thropist, aims to make a handsome return. The group's last big project, the pounds 35m redevelopment of Imperial's huge Wills Tobacco plant into a retail and leisure complex and new campus for South Bristol university, aimed for a return on capital of 20 per cent.