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Barratt linked to debt-lowering sale

Housebuilder Barratt Developments was today said to be considering the sale of its commercial property division to ease the company's £1.7 billion debt burden.

The company, which took on the debt in its £2.2 billion acquisition of rival Wilson Bowden more than a year ago, has appointed consultant Jones Lang LaSalle to help with a possible disposal, according to newspaper reports today.

The sale of Wilson Bowden Developments could net £250 million for the group, whose fortunes have suffered in a slowing housing market.

It briefly became the UK's biggest housebuilder following last year's deal, but dropped out of the FTSE 100 Index in December as its shares were hit by the credit crunch.

Barratt, which declined to comment on the speculation, has a market value of £1.3 billion - well below its debt burden - as its stock has tumbled by more than two-thirds since February 2007.

Wilson Bowden's completed developments include office schemes in Leicester, Nottingham and Glasgow, and industrial projects in Birmingham and Loughborough.

A trade buyer is seen as the most likely purchaser, although a tougher commercial property market and more expensive debt in the credit squeeze could hinder a sale. Barratt may also consider a partial sale of the business, the reports said.

In the six months to December 2007, Wilson Bowden Developments made operating profits of £4.3 million on sales of £42.5 million, described as a "satisfactory performance against increasingly difficult market conditions".

At the time of February's interim results, the group said it was encouraged by the "existing and potential future value" of the division's portfolio and intended to run the business as a stand-alone operation.

Barratt, which is based in Coalville, Leicestershire, reported underlying pre-tax profits of £201.8 million for the half year ended December 31, up 14.3 per cent on a year earlier.

But the group also warned that the difficult trading conditions caused forward sales to slip 7 per cent to £1.61 billion.

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