John Bird: The Guardians of the Arches battle to save us from an urban abyss

"The feudal-like landlord, Network Rail – who gave little – now wants to cash in and cover up their deficit by raising just over £1bn by selling off the 5,500 arches; places that have harboured and encouraged the small business to grow for generations"

After a long cycle, we got to Cambridge and, over porridge, discussed with the cafe owner the disintegration of Cambridge.

The colleges that (when lumped in with their Oxford counterparts own property worth £3.5bn) own much of the city centre, and are intent on upping rents – seemingly randomly.

The cafe owner is astonished as he watches bigger rents drive out smaller traders, with only chains and posh shops able to absorb the increases. The local council seem equally intent on making life more unliveable and unprofitable for the small trader.

Is this a conspiracy to produce a lifeless, stress-laden cityscape where kindness, ease and civility are dumped for the needs of money?

Of course, we know that ‘austerity’ looms like a T. rex over the finances of the local council and (presumably) the colleges. We know that budgets must be met. But this big squeeze on the little trader is un-thought through, and will finally kill what’s so special about Cambridge.

And because of higher rates and harder rents, only the estate agents, the chain stores and the college bursar’s coffers (supposedly stashed full via charitable status) remain in good health.

A cab through London makes you wonder if there’s a conspiracy against all forms of civility and wellbeing in modern, urban life. Buildings going up, with upped rents and rates, and – for the cabby – hundreds more minicabs freed up by Transport for London to flood the streets. A worrisome unhappiness ensues.

The prosperous South of England – where I recently spent a few days – compares drastically to the time I’ve spent in the hard-hit Midlands and knocked North. Where austerity, again, robs communities of sustenance and chance. Where councils don’t seem the evil villains of the piece, but victims of government budget cuts.


There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

The last two weeks North and South seemed to me to show how hard life is under prosperity – and also under poverty. How the under-resourced North seems a world away from a thriving South, where local authorities are reneging on their duties to encourage and spread the prosperity of small businesses.

But as if to put the kibosh on the North-South divide, along comes Network Rail about to sell off 5,500 railway arches; Britain’s little businesses, spread  north, south, east and west.

So there’s me banging on about a divided country in terms of threats and levels (and kinds) of pressure, and Network Rail – with no consultation – undermines thousands of our little businesses in one fell swoop.

Network Rail, and before it, British Rail, neglected to provide anything other than the rent invoice. A contemptible landlord that gave little but increasingly demanded higher rent increases. And now, this summer, they are intent on selling off the railway arches, under a legal ruse for 999 years. To a company who will no doubt be more indefatigably intent on getting more, and more returns on their investment.

Bakers, garages, gyms, kitchens, salons, distilleries, studios strewn all over the country, like a central nervous system where small businesses thrive.

The feudal-like landlord, Network Rail – who gave little – now wants to cash in and cover up their deficit by raising just over £1bn by selling off the 5,500 arches; places that have harboured and encouraged the small business to grow for generations.

Neglect is now seen as a resource. And even though railway lines (and, at times, redundant lines) run above the heads of the traders in their arches, a gigantic cash cow has been espied. What was a property embarrassment – with no discussion, no consultation, no togetherness – can be put up for sale to presumably the highest bidder.

Network Rail has been hiking up rents, on occasion, to over 300 per cent. They have flagrantly ignored even the most basic discussions with the business people who now face a future in peril.

I was privileged to speak at a cross-party meeting in Parliament last week where the Guardians of the Arches campaign set out their plan to fight this medieval bit of landlordism, demonstrating the spirit of people who won’t take this lying down.

But there seem to be so many signs now that national government, local government, real estate holders – and the likes of the Department for Transport and Transport for London are pushing us towards an urban abyss.

Each party seemingly pushing their own interests. Cambridge colleges not caring for local trade. Custodians of our cities ignoring city users. And behemoths like Network Rail sacrificing the prosperity of the many on the altar of short-term budgetary respite.

A confederacy of dunces prevails.

Sign the letter to save the arches here


Image: Sarah Ainslie