Harpenden village boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the country – and St Albans District Council is looking to buy.

The council has drawn up plans to invest £18.75million in shops, offices and homes around Harpenden High Street.

It says the “very long-term” investment will help the council to balance the books into the future.

And – as high streets suffer across the country – it says it will be able to play a role in "place-shaping" and benefiting the area.

But critics have pointed to the relatively low return on the proposed £18.75m investment – which is expected to be around  £90,000 a year.

They point to the risks of falling rents, the decline of the high street and erosion in the value of the capital.

And they question whether the council could actually implement some of the possible measures, designed to support local businesses.

Conservative councillors have already called for the project to be axed.

And it is believed to be a sticking point in the Conservatives backing the budget proposals.

But Liberal Democrat leader of the council Cllr Chris White maintains that this is a good investment.

Like other councils, he says St Albans is keen to use its borrowing powers to bring-in additional income streams that can help to deliver services.

He says the council has had professional assurances the Harpenden Estate is a valuable asset with sound returns.

And by focussing the council’s investment within the St Albans district, the impact will not be purely commercial.

“As an accountable landlord we want to operate in the interests of local people, rather than just commercially,” he said.

The provision of pop-up accommodation, shared-space retail and a willingness to let to local businesses are all measures that could be considered if the sale goes through.

And it is believed lower rents for retailers offering a specific product or service or concessions for those facing financial difficulties could be considered too.

But Conservative group leader Cllr Mary Maynard – who has been a Harpenden resident for 40 years – believes the council should axe the plans.

She says the "difficult to manage" site is over-priced by up to £3.5million and that the return on the investment is low and risky.

She also points to legislation which she says would make it difficult to offer concessionary rents for local businesses.

“The current administration has not listened to any of the comments made across multiple meetings,” she said.

“And they have failed to give believable or credible answers to key concerns  – insisting on making an investment that will give them a mere half a per cent return.

“With such a risky investment you would expect much higher returns.”

At the meeting of the full council last Wednesday (January 15), Harpenden Town councillor Nigel Turnbull asked a question, as a member of the public.

Mr Turnbull – who has headed up large property development and investment companies – highlighted the cost of the investment, the return of a “mere” 0.5 per cent and the risks posed by falling rents and erosion of capital.

And he asked, "why is the council proposing this investment at a very full price?"

In a written answer portfolio holder for resources, Cllr Karen Young (Liberal Democrat) said the £90,000 figure in the budget was for 2020/21 only.

She said the council expected income over 10 years to reach an average of £146,000, even assuming there to be a higher than average number of empty retail units.

And she said the planned investment would bring in an income and allow the council to have an impact on the area.

She said: “This is a very long-term investment that will help the Council fill the growing budget gap in future years.

“Finances are very tight and we need to find alternative sources of income given the funding reductions from central government.

“This is an investment primarily for place-shaping purposes and to benefit the area.

“However, as an investment we will be very careful of capital prices and any action that would impair the value.”

Following the meeting town councillor Nigel Turnbull said he thought this “was the daftest idea he had ever heard”.

He said he understood why the council would want to buy property to generate income, but he said he thought they would be “grossly over-paying”.