Controversial plans for St Albans District Council to purchase the ‘Harpenden Estate’ have been put on hold – as the coronavirus outbreak impacts on property values.

The council had drawn up plans to invest around £18.75 million in shops, offices and residential properties around Harpenden high street.

And it was said the “very long-term” investment would allow the council to take on a ‘place-shaping’ role and bring in an income.

But at a meeting of St Albans District Council’s cabinet on Thursday, March 19, it emerged the deal had been put on ice.

Liberal Democrat council leader Cllr Chris White told the meeting that the impact of the coronavirus on property valuations had led to the council putting the purchase on hold, for now.

He said that since the coronavirus restrictions had been announced by the Government, leading property valuation firms had added ‘material valuation uncertainty clauses’ to all future valuations. 

And that, he said, had created “huge uncertainty” around the value of the Harpenden Estate and the risks associated.

He stressed that the Harpenden Estate remained the ‘right property estate’ for the council.

But he said the decision had been taken to “pause” the acquisition process, “until the property industry is able to assess property implications in a rational way.”

And at that time, he said, the council would re-engage with the vendor to conclude the acquisition.

The plans to purchase the estate have been surrounded in controversy for some time.  And Conservatives have already called for the plans to be axed.

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, critics had pointed to the relatively low return on the proposed investment.

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

And they had questioned whether the council could actually implement some of the measures that had been suggested.

Following the cabinet meeting, Conservative group leader Cllr Mary Maynard again called for the project to be scrapped.

“At the moment they are delaying it – but they should be cancelling it,” she said.

“The Harpenden Estate decision was imprudent even before the coronavirus pandemic. It would be reckless to go ahead with it.”

She says it is the wrong time for the council to become involved with retail property and commercial property such as this.

And she suggests the council would be paying too much and that the return would be too low and too risky.