Profile: A multi-storey monopolist: Sir Don Gosling: The chief of National Car Parks is not keen on nosy parkers, as William Kay discovers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PHONE rang. It was Chapman Pincher, the celebrated veteran spy journalist, one-time Reporter of the Decade and author of The Truth About Dirty Tricks and other books in that vein.

'Sir Don Gosling is very distressed,' he intoned. 'He's an old shooting pal of mine, and he's heard you've been talking to people who know him.'

Sir Don - he apparently prefers the chummy abbreviation to the full-blown 'Donald' - is chairman of National Parking Corporation, parent company of the ubiquitous National Car Parks or NCP, which controls more than 650 car parks throughout Britain, 70 per cent of the private sector parking market. Despite the monopoly, it has escaped investigation by the Office of Fair Trading because car parking is not legally deemed to be a service. It also owns National Breakdown, a car-recovery business.

Sir Don, 65, sprang back into the headlines recently, after a lapse of several years, when he responded to the news that the Royal Yacht Britannia was to be decommissioned. He proposed that businessmen like himself should club together to buy the Queen a new boat. He started the ball rolling by putting up pounds 5m of his own money.

In 1991, Sir Don declared: 'Britain is my country, and I believe in it. If more people followed my example and spent their money on British goods, there would be less people out of work and more wealth to go round the country.'

A man, then, who would not seem to be averse to a little publicity? Well, yes and no.

Mr Pincher's brief, in the best espionage tradition, was to stop this profile being written.

Sir Don, who was understood last week to be relaxing on his yacht, Leander, at an anchorage off the Caribbean island of Antigua, is apparently concerned because he does not want anything to upset his current negotiations to sell National Parking to a group of institutional investors led by the Prudential.

National Parking makes pre-tax profits of more than pounds 50m a year, which might justify a price of as much as pounds 1bn. That would value Sir Don's stake at pounds 300m.

Sir Don has been hinting for over a quarter of a century that he would take National Parking public, and over the years has sold nearly half the shares to the Pru and their ilk. But somehow the timing for a stock market float, and the attendant constant glare of scrutiny from press and analysts, has never been quite right.

And yet Sir Don eagerly courts what he considers to be the right sort of publicity.

He is one of those businessmen who like to use their wealth to buy the company of celebrities, mostly of the showbusiness variety. He supports the Variety Club of Great Britain, and likes to invite aboard his yachts such stars as Joan Collins, Jimmy Tarbuck, Tim Rice and the Duchess of York, who party the night away to the strains of Girl From Ipanema, a Gosling favourite.

In between such jollies, Sir Don rents out the Leander at pounds 28,000 a day. Named after his wartime vessel, it is 75 metres long, equipped with satellite phones and fax, with two suites and nine double guest staterooms, and requires a crew of 22. Yet Sir Don was once said to be so embarrassed driving his own Rolls-Royce that he promptly traded it in for two Range Rovers.

A frequent guest, and fellow member of the charitable Saints and Sinners Club, is the raconteur Ned Sherrin, who said: 'He is simply a jolly, generous friend. He always seems so all-embracing in his enthusiasms. He just keeps on the go.'

Lord Parkinson, the former Conservative cabinet minister and party chairman, added: 'I have had a drink on one of his boats, though I haven't been for a cruise with him. He has this passion for boats, and he is very generous in sharing what he has got with his friends.'

Sir Don is also an unstintingly generous donor to charity, particularly naval causes. He is a leading figure in the Submarine Memorial Trust, the HMS Ark Royal Welfare Trust and the White Ensign Association, which helps Royal Navy and Royal Marine officers to find jobs in civvy street. In 1991, the Gosling Foundation reportedly also gave pounds 200,000 to the Margaret Thatcher Charitable Trust. During the 1980s, he and his then wife, Shauna, were regular guests for Christmas lunch at Chequers.

Yet he was knighted in Harold Wilson's controversial 1976 resignation honours list, along with two other businessmen, James Hanson and James Goldsmith. Intriguingly, the more consistently publicity-shy Ronald Hobson, Sir Don's business partner, was also offered a knighthood then, but declined.

As with Sir Don's fluctuating attitude to publicity, his political affiliations have left friends and commentators with conflicting impressions.

In a 1979 profile, Mr Pincher attributed the knighthood to 'intensive charitable work' and 'services to HM Forces'.

Yet Philip Ziegler, the historian and author of the authorised life of Lord Wilson, said Sir Don 'was always a conscientious Labour supporter and a personal friend of Wilson. He was one of the few Labour tycoons. I would assume that it would have been very much in Wilson's pattern of behaviour to reward someone who supported him, and whom he liked.'

A fellow supporter of Wilson was Jarvis Astaire, the former boxing promoter and a director of Wembley Stadium, where NCP manages the car park. Asked about Sir Don's apparent change of political allegiance in the 1980s, Mr Astaire added: 'He probably became disillusioned with the Labour party in the Michael Foot era. I should think he will be returning now. He's a socialist at heart.'

Yet Lord Parkinson retorted: 'If he's not a Conservative, I don't know who is.' And Mr Pincher insisted: 'Politically, he is a staunch supporter of Mrs Thatcher.'

Like many a millionaire, Sir Don fell into car-parking almost by accident, before most people imagined how crowded the roads of Britain's cities would become.

Against his parents' wishes, he left elementary school in Streatham, south London, at the age of 15 to join the Royal Navy. It was 1944, and he was just in time to see active service in the Mediterranean before, sadly for him, the Second World War ended.

'The blackest day of my life was when I was told I had to leave the Navy in 1949 because of the post-war rundown of the services,' Sir Don admitted. 'I was heartbroken. I loved the Navy and thought it offered everything I could ever want.'

Landlocked, he became a trainee surveyor with Westminster City Council. One day Ronald Hobson, an ex-soldier then aged 24, asked how to obtain planning permission to turn a bomb site in Red Lion Square, near Holborn, into a car park. Sir Don explained the procedure and the two became friends. After a few months with an estate agent, Sir Don joined Mr Hobson and the business was born. They charged cars 1/6d - 7 1/2 p - a day. 'Business was terrible to start with,' Sir Don recalled. 'There was a lot of land in London at that time and virtually no parking control. For the first six months we were lucky if we booked in more than a dozen cars a day - and we had space for 120.'

But as London's car population grew, the cash began to flow, financing more car parks, then a chain of filling stations and a hotel in north London.

By 1966, the ICI pension fund had bought shares in the business and two years later they were opening one of Europe's biggest car parks, holding 2,000 vehicles, in Copenhagen.

In 1959, Sir Don married Shauna Ingram, part of the family which owned Palmer & Harvey, a wholesale confectioner and tobacconist where Sir Don became a director. Its profits run at pounds 25m a year.

He quit Palmer & Harvey in 1988, the year he and Shauna divorced, but returned after a management buy-out.

The showbiz and political establishment temporarily drew back from Sir Don in 1990, when a report in the Sunday Times led to one of the biggest police investigations into industrial espionage in Britain.

Last year, Gordon Layton, NCP group chief executive, was acquitted of conspiring to defraud Europarks, a competitor. NCP carried out a three-year campaign of industrial espionage to acquire confidential information, but the defence successfully argued the operation was legal and was intended to find out whether Europarks was obtaining information about NCP.

NCP later paid Stephen Tucker, chairman of Europarks, pounds 30m to buy his controlling stake in that company and make him a consultant to NCP.

A problem solved and, in Sir Don's terms, rendered shipshape.

(Photograph omitted)