Council plans to purchase St Peter’s Street building move forwards

Lockey House in St Peter's Street.

Lockey House in St Peter's Street. - Credit: Archant

A city centre retail and office block on the market for £7.2 million has been approved for purchase by the council.

Councillors voted to approve the acquisition of Lockey House in St Peter’s Street, the building that currently has Barclays Bank and Virgin Money among its tenants.

The cabinet – the council’s executive - approved moves to purchase the freehold of the property back in July, and a significant offer secured its position as the preferred bidder.

A meeting of the full council has now approved the decision by 29 votes to 22; so money will be made available for the purchase, and the council is now completing the legal due diligence prior to exchanging and completing on the sale.

The purchase of Lockey House will enable the council to manage the whole area more effectively and to shape the economic mix of uses for shoppers, businesses and residents while also providing future redevelopment options.

Adjacent to the building is the CCOS South redevelopment site, which and was formerly the site of a police station and NHS clinic, which is being transformed into adjacent blocks of flats and commercial space.

It is also intended to create new annual revenue as the rental income should be more than the repayments for the 50-year loan to buy the building.

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Cllr Robert Donald, portfolio holder for commercial, development and wellbeing, said earlier this year: “This is a unique opportunity to acquire one of the biggest and most prominent commercial buildings on our high street which will enable us to protect and support the city’s economic life. We believe we should not miss this opportunity.”

But while considering the building as a potentially useful strategic acquisition, the Conservative group voted against buying it, claiming the Lib Dem administration’s plans were short term and did not have the public and high street as their primary focus.

Mary Maynard, leader of the opposition at the council said: “It’s a great pity. It could have been a fantastic opportunity to open up an exciting new space that could have been used for a variety of purposes. However, this is not a standalone purchase and must be looked at in terms of the wider picture.

“This Liberal Democrat run council is already planning to use 107% loans to fund over ambitious property speculation, for example, nearly £19 million to buy up part of Harpenden High Street at a top of the market price.

“Even more debt is racking up through project management incompetence. In 18 months, they have delivered nothing, are late on every project and have millions of pounds worth of cost overruns on six of the seven projects currently underway.

“This acquisition allows them to speculate with a further £7.2 million of local ratepayers’ money. Even worse, when questioned it is clear they have no vision or passion for what could be achieved on the site and do not seem to understand the way Covid is transforming the way people live, work and shop.”

District council leader Cllr Chris White responded to these allegations: “I am astonished that the Conservatives never learn. The debt incurred by the council is largely in relation to the large number of prestige projects that they chose to embark on while in administration.

“The Lockey House investment borrowing amounts to less than a quarter of the sums dedicated to the current Harpenden projects which we are completing in accordance with the expectations of Harpenden residents. The project mismanagement referred to is in relation to the Harpenden projects where the Conservatives sought to massage the figures by cutting the contingency sums allocated from 10 per cent to two per cent, contrary to the council’s own rule book. We were landed with the consequences.

“The Lockey House investment will give an immediate return and amounts to a sound, non-specualtive investment as certified by the council’s professional advisers - whose opinions the Conservatives have seen.”