THE MOLE

On the subject of planning

The Mole's spy Isabelle was on a train going to Heathrow Airport when she rang Mole Headquarters to report on her latest discovery. Explaining her location (as people always do on mobile phones) proved to be rather a complicated matter as Isabelle, like all French ladies, is quite incapable of pronouncing an H and so for a short time The Mole was perplexed by something called "Z'eatrow Express"

"What is it with the Engleesh?" said Isabelle "You cannot build a fast train track to Le Tunnel so I have to go on ze plane and this funny little train to the airport. Everyone is wearing purple! I mean who wears purple these days? Bishops and American tourists!"

"Yes," said The Mole, only half-listening. "I think that is going to be sorted out soon. I read somewhere recently that they managed to get a train up to 200mph in Kent."

"It's a little better than your 60mph Eurostar," said Isabelle playfully. "Well I 'ope that they are not wearing purple on zis new train. It is 'orrid."

The Mole yawned.

"And Mike Gascoyne?" he said.

"Will you take me for dinner at a Michelin place?" she asked coyly.

"Of course," said The Mole, wondering how his amorous little French spy would enjoy lunch in the staff canteen in Clermont Ferrand.

"Well," said Isabelle, "there are lawyers involved and his future at Renault is, how shall we say?"

At this point the communication cut out. The Mole shrugged and assumed that the train had gone into the tunnels at 'eatrow. The Mole thought that she had said "short-lived" just before the line dropped out but he was not quite sure.

The conversation had, however, led to the departure of another train of thought.

For the last six years, The Mole mused, they have been digging great big holes all over Kent in order to construct the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. They may call Kent the Garden of England but recently they have been redoing the patio in the Garden of England and its a real mess. There are new roads and railways going in all directions.

The Mole's train of thought had arrived at Brands Hatch. With so much trouble surrounding Silverstone and so much building in Kent, he thought, surely a little extra work at Brands Hatch would not make a big effect. The Mole had heard a whisper that morning from New York suggesting that the high-flying executives at Interpublic headquarters in the Rockefeller Center had come up with a novel idea of getting rid of their investment in motor racing.

The Mole dragged out the "Brands Hatch" file and began reading.

The Interpublic people got carried away in the boom years in the late 1990s and decided that there was money to be made in motor racing. In 1999 they forked out 120m to buy the Brands Hatch Leisure group. For that they acquired the racing circuits at Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton and Cadwell Park and a contract to run the British Grand Prix for an extended period. The only drawback was that BHL (which was renamed Octagon Motor Sports) did not have a circuit that was up to the necessary standard to run a Grand Prix. And it was too late to do anything about it. So a deal was struck to rent Silverstone from the British Racing Drivers' Club for 15 years. Interpublic had thus agreed not only to pay Bernie Ecclestone to hold a race but also agreed to pay to use Silverstone.

It was not long before a bean-counter in the Rockefeller Center worked out that this was going to cost Interpublic something like 250m over 15 years. The maximum income that could be hoped for was about half of that figure. This caused some discomfort in New York and it was decided that they needed to pay some suits at the investment bank Goldman Sachs to tell them what to do next. The conclusion, brilliant in its clarity, was that they were not very clever and should sell up and get out of racing. Interpublic changed Octagon Motor Sports into Brands Hatch Circuits Ltd and put it up for sale.

In the company filings it was reckoned that the business was worth 70m. Brands Hatch's 400 acres might be sold for housing at 1m an acre but planning permission for housing was never going to be granted and the property people said Interpublic would be lucky to raise 40m from the sale.

The Mole paused, shook his head in amazement, and went back to reading.

There was, it said, one other problem. Interpublic had apparently given the BRDC a guarantee that it would pay the rent at Silverstone for the full 15 years. Interpublic could perhaps pay off the BRDC with a chunk of cash to get out of the guarantee but how were the men in the Rockefeller Center going to pay off Bernie Ecclestone as well?

And this was where the rumour that The Mole had heard came into play as the word on Sixth Avenue was that the men in the Rockefeller Center might be willing to GIVE Bernie the racing circuits in exchange for him also taking the contract to run the British GP.

The Mole smiled.

It was a classic Bernie deal but, The Mole mused, he would want some cash as well.

The Mole looked out of the window for a moment.

If Bernie was willing to invest he could turn Brands Hatch into a great facility, just as he has done in recent years with Paul Ricard. The problem would be one of planning permission. There would, inevitably, be complaints from local residents but The Mole concluded that these would probably not count for much. Most of the complaints come from people in the housing near to the track but as the houses were built after the racing circuit the buyers knew what they were getting into and so would get very little sympathy. Other complaints about congestion would be solved by the planning permission. Apart from a few people complaining about ancient trees, there was really no reason why Kent should not enjoy the estimated 30m a year of direct income that a Grand Prix would bring to the area.

The Mole decided to send off Penelope (Benenden), his best researcher, to find out what she could from the planning office. She came back, rather breathless, at teatime.

"Well," she said, "back in 2000 the local council in Sevenoaks agreed to the plans for Brands Hatch put forward by Interpublic, but they said that they must be cleared by the government. The Planning Minister at the time decided that a public inquiry would be necessary and that was due to begin in January 2001. That was at the moment when Interpublic decided to do the deal with the BRDC and so the planning application was withdrawn. In other words it could be revived.

"It was a pretty major rebuild with reprofiling of the track to create run-off areas and a completely new pit and paddock complex out in the woods," she went on. "The problem was that this brought opposition from the tree-huggers, despite the fact that the plans promised five times as many new trees."

The Mole pondered a moment.

"If I remember correctly," he said, "the Planning Minister, or rather the Minister of State for Planning, is a chap called Keith Hill."

"That's right," said Penelope. "And guess what? He's also minister for London and in charge of a big project called the Thames Gateway. I had no idea what that was but I looked it up and it is a huge regeneration scheme for the eastern parts of London, both north and south of the river. They want to create a massive new development zone with the emphasis being on high technology. There is also something called the Thames Gateway Kent Partnership, which seeks to take that scheme further out into northern Kent. And there are lots of plans for science and technology parks, innovation centres and new technology institutes. It is all designed to promote competitiveness and growth."

"And," said Penelope triumphantly, "the Kent County Council is part of it and they have just published a new blueprint for sport in Kent, which says they want big international events and that they must make the most of the existing facilities in Kent."

"Facilities like Brands Hatch," said The Mole.

"It all sounds a bit like what they have done in Malaysia," said Penelope.

"Indeed, indeed," said The Mole. "There is even a new transport hub not far from Brands Hatch called Ebbsfleet so all the Renault people can come over by train."

Penelope scratched her head.

Sometimes, she concluded, The Mole made no sense at all.

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