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

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)

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Manager - SAS - Data Warehouse - Banking

£350 - £365 per day: Orgtel: Manager, SAS, Data Warehouse, Banking, Bristol - ...

SQL DBA/Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer
 SQL, C#, VBA, Linux, SQL Se...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?