Shopping fever pays off for Ritblat's British Land

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The Independent Online

British Land surprised the City with a bigger-than-expected jump in the value of its assets, driven by its retail property and share buybacks.

However, the property company yesterday faced renewed calls from rebel shareholder, Laxey Partners, to break its portfolio up. Laxey said it plans to put forward resolutions to this effect at British Land's forthcoming annual general meeting. British Land has already rejected the resolutions on legal grounds.

It is thought that Laxey's shareholding in British Land is now down to just 0.3 per cent, in shares it owns and has the voting rights to. Laxey has a further 0.5 per cent in "contracts for difference" which do not have voting rights. At the peak of its investment in British Land, Laxey had a holding of over 3 per cent. The investor has led a campaign for over a year that has sought management and portfolio changes at British Land, as well as large-scale share buybacks.

John Ritblat, chairman and chief executive of British Land, said: "We don't resent in any way shareholders raising issues with us but [Laxey] have behaved in a way that is unacceptable to our institutional shareholders."

For the year ended 31 March, net asset value per share at British Land rose 7.1 per cent to 860p. That was helped by its share buyback programme and a convertible bond buyback. The value of the portfolio grew 0.7 per cent to £9.645bn. Retail property saw a 7.9 per cent uplift but City property fell 6.1 per cent, reflecting falling rents in the sector and worries about the health of occupiers.

Mr Ritblat said the company's ownership of supermarket properties was paying off. Getting planning permission for out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres is now all but impossible, providing these properties with local "monopolies", according to Mr Ritblat. "You and I keep shopping and you can't keep the women away," said Mr Ritblat. "There are staggering statistical increases [in shopping]."

Mr Ritblat lashed out at the "corporate social responsibility" and environmental standards' reporting now required of companies. He said British Land was swamped by standard-issue forms from fund managers for this, often containing irrelevant questions for a UK property company with a relatively small staff. "The non-productive element of corporate and social responsibility is filling in those agonising questionnaires! One of the leading institutional inquisitors in this field has 53 pages of questions and 58 pages of notes," he said.