Hollick sells Southern for pounds 47m to rival newspaper group

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UNITED News & Media, Lord Hollick's publishing and television group, yesterday took the first step in the disposal of its regional newspaper division when it sold its Southern titles to rival group Southnews for pounds 47.5m.

Southnews will partly fund the acquisition of the 28 titles, which include the Staines Informer and the Enfield Advertiser, with a placing and open offer to raise pounds 19.6m.

Southnews is understood to have beaten off stiff competition to win the auction. Other bidders are thought to have included regional newspaper groups Trinity International and Newsquest as well as venture capital groups Candover and CVC.

Gareth Clark, Southnews' chairman, said the company's bid had been helped by the fact it does not have to be automatically referred to the competition authorities, reducing the risk of a time-consuming enquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC). Southnews escapes a referral because most of its titles are free. The Government's decision last week to block a similar deal - the acquisition of Johnston Press by Home Counties Newspapers - is thought to have scared off other trade bidders. Johnston and HCN had said its offer was made on the basis that neither company wanted an MMC inquiry.

Home Counties said yesterday that although its offer for Johnston Press had lapsed, it intended to pursue the acquisition by co-operating with an MMC investigation.

United News said the sale of the other two parts of its regional newspapers division - the Northern and Spanish titles - was "progressing well". Trinity and Newsquest are thought to have pulled out of the running for the Northern titles but Candover is still involved.

Mr Clark said Southnews hoped to save about pounds 1m a year by integrating the businesses.Southnews shares closed up 6p at 465p. United News shares put on 2p to 287p.