Lovells clinches DSS sell-off work

Lovell White Durrant has scooped a £1 million contract to advise the Government on the estimated £4 billion sell-off of the Department of Social Security's national property estate.

Lovells won a beauty parade involving at least six other law firms, rumoured to have included Linklaters & Paines, Norton Rose and Nabarro Nathanson.

The sell-off, code-named Project Prime, was unveiled by Lord Chancellor and Social Security Minister Lord Mackay last June. The entire estate, comprising 700 benefits offices and other DSS buildings, will be transferred to the private sector under the Private Finance Initiative.

Lovells is said to be “over the moon” but is under government instructions not to make a public statement because the tendering process was supposed to be confidential.

The contract is not as lucrative as the £10 million thought to have been awarded to law firms involved in the Railtrack privatisation. But it is seen as a good catch for Lovells, whose property department has been growing in recent years.

Norton Rose is known to be particularly disappointed at not clinching the work. But it can comfort itself with a number of other feathers in its cap, such as the brief to advise Hanson on the development of a shopping centre in Peterborough.

The DSS is responsible for 1.7 million square metres of office space with an annual rental value of £160 million.

Under the arrangements being put in place by ministers, the buildings will be operated by a private consortium which may rationalise the number of benefits offices and develop them for other purposes.

A preferred bidder will be selected next spring and the deal completed by autumn.

Six consortia have already been shortlisted by the Government, with investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Nomura heading the list.

The key objectives of Project Prime are to reduce the running costs of the department's massive estate and secure private sector funding.