Underneath the arches of Britain’s rail infrastructure, a huge political row is brewing. Network Rail is in the advance stages of plans to sell off its 5,500 railway arches across the country for a short-term cash injection, selling out the thousands of small businesses that use the arches.
Wracked by the uncertainty over their business premises being sold by a publicly owned company to a hedge fund or multi-national corporation, the £1.2 billion auction is the last thing these small traders need with Brexit bringing its own difficulties. Many of the traders have recently reported rent increases of more than 300 per cent.
We have got to stick together and make a big force to beat Network Rail and the Government
But the business owners who have thrived in these spaces are fighting back. A group called Guardians of the Arches – made up of traders from Gateshead, Leeds, London, Manchester and beyond – gathered in Parliament on Tuesday to launch its campaign to #SaveOurArches.
Ronnie Grant is 93½ years old. He has rented railway arches for more than half a century for his Clapham North MOT business, which is now run by his son, George.
Ronnie said: “I have been a tenant of Network Rail since 1960 – they have done absolutely nothing to our arches except put the rent up.
“My rent has just increased by 350 per cent but we have not come to an agreement yet. We have got to stick together and make a big force to beat Network Rail and the government.”
Like many arches businesses, Ronnie has done a lot of the work to rebuild, repurpose and upgrade the previously unwanted spaces under the arches himself. Now the spaces are seen as desirable, the government and Network Rail are keen to cash in.
— MOT's Service Tyres (@ClaphamMOT) June 13, 2018
Katie Cullen is a newer tenant, as co-owner of Block & Bottle in Gateshead. Cullen opened the UK’s first dedicated free range butcher and craft beer shop in April 2017.
“We have gone from enthusiasts to employers,” she said, before praising the creativity and collaboration that has transformed the arches community in Gateshead into a thriving landscape.
Political big hitters joined the Guardians of the Arches campaigners. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and a group of Shadow Cabinet MPs, listened to the speeches, while Liberal Democrat Baroness Bakewell was also in attendance and added her signatures to the open letter to Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling.
Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, told the meeting that income from the arches raises £70million per year for Network Rail. “The fact that so many senior politicians are here is a sign of concern that the government is selling off the family silver,” she said.
But the proposed sale not only threatens thousands of small traders, it also represents bad business. The gathering of entrepreneurs in Committee Room 10 know this better than anyone.
Network Rail is giving up reliable long-term income for short-term gain
“The sale and threat of rent increases is creating uncertainty, which is the exact opposite of what we need at the moment,” said Cullen. “Network Rail is giving up reliable long-term income for short-term gain.”
The Big Issue’s Lord John Bird, a vocal backer of the campaign, also spoke out against the planned sell-off – accusing the government of a return to Feudalism.
In a letter to the Secretary of State, Lord Bird described the arches businesses as one of the jewels in Britain’s publicly-owned crown.
“The arches have long been places where unique and enterprising small businesses have flourished,” he said. “These small businesses are the lifeblood of Britain’s economy, and I am deeply concerned that such sharp rental increases and proposed sale of the properties will mean that few, if any, of these businesses will survive.”
Image: Sarah Ainslie