Irish developers behind £400 million London landmark purchase

ONE of England’s most famous landmarks has been snapped up by two of Ireland’s richest property tycoons.

Battersea Power Station – the Grade II listed red brick building which graced the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals LP – has been bought for £400 million by a company backed by developers Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett.

Their treasury Holdings firm is the company behind Dublin’s multi-billion pound Spencer Dock development, which is estimated to be the largest urban regeneration project ever completed in Ireland.

Their big-money purchase of such an iconic building as Battersea Power Station is the latest of a number of recent property “raids” by Irish developers who now own large tracks of London.

Yet another famous landmark – the £900 million Gherkin building – is rumoured to be a target for a consortium led by developer Aidan Brooks, and including JP McManus and John Magnier.

Limerick man Brooks already owns large swathes of fashionable Bond Street and was the lead bidder for other large London properties.

The Battersea deal, which was announced yesterday, was struck with the £900 million property firm Real Estate Opportunities (REO) – in which a majority shareholder is Treasury Holdings.

REO will have to spend a further amount of money between £1.5 and £2 billion to develop the site, which has lain undeveloped since it shut down as a power station in 1982 to became one of the most protracted and controversial redevelopment projects in London’s planning history.

In that time, bids to develop the site included one by led by Alton Towers Theme Park boss John Broome.

More than £250 million was spent on the project between his £1.5 million purchase of the site and the early 1990s, by which time the plans were abandoned and the historic building left in its current semi-derelict and roofless state.

The REO deal – which has taken around 90 days to negotiate – comes just two weeks after Wandsworth council finally granted planning permission for its redevelopment.

The building’s previous owners – the Hong Kong-based Hwang family – bought the site in 1993 for a mere £10 million from an American bank.

Victor Hwang’s subsequent plans for the site – which includes 38 acres of land and 415 yards of river footage – included 40 restaurants, a hotel, a cinema and a leisure complex.

REO is believed to be planning to add an additional 750,000 sq ft of offices and exhibition space, a conference centre, a concert venue and around 750 flats.

Last night Treasury Holdings’ development director Rob Davies said: “It’s still too early for us to say exactly what we’ll be putting on the site because we now need to consult with the various bodies associated with this building.

“Although it is not as big as our Spencer Dock development in Dublin, the scale of the Battersea project is considerable and it is by far our highest profile development in England.

“We’ve been interested in it for a number of years but recently we built up a relationship with the Hwang family through our business interests in China, where Treasury is the largest western developer.

“The company is delighted to be able to acquire Battersea Power Station as part of an on-going and systematic diversification plan by Treasury Holdings.

“While we appreciate the site has been the subject of a number of attempts at redevelopment over the years, Treasury is very much in the business of getting things moving.”

The company – which is jointly owned by Ronan and Barrett – owns or operates a property portfolio in excess of €2.1 billion.

As well as the Spencer Dock development, interests also include the Bewley’s Cafe building on Dublin’s Grafton Street and the National Conference Centre (NCC), which Treasury is tasked with building.

Pony-tailed Ronan, who – like Barrett – is one of Ireland’s richest men, is a flamboyant and colourful character who is the proud owner of one of only a handful of Maybach cars in Ireland.

The father-of-three, who shuns publicity, took delivery of the €650,000 sleek black Daimler/Chrysler in 2004 and is ranked joint 61st richest man in Ireland with a personal fortune worth an estimated €174 million.

This is based largely around his joint ownership of the £196 million Treasury Holdings Group with pal Richard Barrett. Private property includes his rural estate based around the former home of the late Sir Basil Goulding.

His celebrity chums include actor Colin Farrell, who he first met while the actor worked as a barman at Dublin’s Elephant & Castle restaurant and who he now advises him on his property investments.

Lawyer Barrett, who is unmarried, is renowned for his legal muscle. He once wrote: “Certain opponents of ours have underestimated our ability to cause legal chaos to their detriment”.

The Battersea Power Station purchase is not the dynamic duo’s first stab at a national landmark. In 2001, they owned an estimated 80 per cent holding in a company that bid unsuccessfully to buy London’s Millennium Dome.

Condemned as a potential eyesore and a pollutant to nearby parks and the “noble buildings of London” by protesters when plans for its construction were initially unveiled, the power station was completed in 1939.

It was designed by the same architect who designed Liverpool Cathedral and the classic English red phone box. Its control room is Art Deco in style and the turbine hall is lined with Italian marble.

Originally built with only two chimneys but by 1955, two more – and an identical power station – were built alongside the original in 1955, thereby giving the building its now famous four-chimneys and making it the largest brick building in Europe.

In 1964, a fire at the plant so severely disrupted power supplies to London that the April 20 launch of BBC Two was delayed till 11am the following day.

The inflatable pink pig rock group Pink Floyd initially tethered to the station for the front cover of their album Animals in 1977 broke free and shot off in the direction of London’s Heathrow Airport’s flight paths before crash landing in nearby Kent.

Other aspects of its cultural legacy include being a setting in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, a backdrop to a scene in the Beatles’ 1965 film Help!

More recently, it even appeared in the background in a scene from an episode in the hit drama series, Lost.

The deal is the latest in a string of deals signed by Irish developers, who – in the past few years – have spent billions in high profile deals on the UK property market that show how the Celtic Tiger is still very much alive and well.

Added Davies: “The number of deals recently is a reflection of the change of fortunes of Irish companies. Ireland has a huge amount of development skills and the culture has bred a number of very entrepreneurial developers.

“The Celtic Tiger is still going strong.”

Irish property company purchases in UK are headed by the Cosgrave Property Group, which spent €740 million in 2006 alone.

Purchases included a €400 million shopping centre in Essex, the €118 million Caxtongate Shopping Centre in Birmingham and two entire office blocks near London’s Oxford Street for an estimated €200 million.

Sloan Capital – which is fronted by 36-year-old former TV aerial salesman Aidan Brooks (who counts ex-PM Margaret Thatcher and Roman Abramovich among neighbours to his £4.5 million London base), but also involves John Magnier and JP McManus – is also another major player.The company’s purchases include the €251 million Unilever building in London. Other deals have included selling the Standard Charter buidling – also in London – for €310 million.

Other big purchasers are Derek Quinlan and David Arnold who bought a €784 million portfolio of properties over 3.4 acres in Knightsbridge around the world famous Harrods store.

The deal was struck with the BP Pension Fund despite stiff competition from the Abu Dhabi royal family and a Bank of Ireland-led consortium. Another spectacular Quinlan deal was securing the €1.1 billion Savoy Group on behalf of clients.

The huge amount of land bought up gradually over the decades in London and Europe by Mayo-born builder and developer Sean Mulryan – a leading campaigner to bring the Olympics to London – is said to have a development value of around €22 billion.

His latest plans – which include a €750 million marina in east London’s Silvertown district – are likely to add even more value to his assets, which also include a 35-acre site at nearby Minoco Wharf, which Mulryan’s firm Ballymore bought in 2004 for €60 million.

Other developers include Tony Kilduff, whose Cheval Properties firm is estimated to have spent more than €650 million on property in the UK, and developers Michael McDonagh and Tim Bohan.

The two Galway developers spent more than €250 million buying Dutch bank ABN Amro’s London offices for €256 million while in 2005, Brian O’Donnell splashed out an estimated €200 million for the Westferry Circus site to add to his purchase of the nearby 17 Columbus Courtyard site for €170 million.

The other two high profile purchasers are Patrick Rocca and the Brennan family, with the former being behind property deals worth more than €300 million – including the €100 million purchase of retailer Argus’ Bedford distribution centre and a €30 million site near the City of London.

The Brennan Family – who have made their initial fortune from making bread – have spent more than €80 million on two prestigious London West End properties – the Hamleys toy store building on Regent Street and the former Versace store on Bond Street.

ENDS