The campaign to stop Network Rail shabbily selling off 5,500 railway arches for a short-term cash injection is gathering pace.
These spaces have offered affordable premises to entrepreneurs and small businesses for several generations. They are unconventional sites, which have allowed communities to flourish. The hike in rents that will follow the sell-off will kill off many of these vital spaces. Here is just one story of a business worth fighting for.
My name is Katie Cullen and I own Block & Bottle – the UKs first combined butchers and craft beer shop located in a railway arch in Gateshead in the North East. We opened in April 2017 and have been there just over a year. As a small business we provide so many functions within our community that go beyond providing people with meat and beer.
Firstly, we have grown from enthusiasts to employers – a year ago there were only two of us employed by the business. Within our first 6 months we hired someone part-time and 6 months later they are now full-time and we are about to look for our next employee. The reasonable rents in the arches have allowed us to expand and just after a year of opening we have started a second small business which we have plans to be an industry leader in the UK and employ many more people over the next 5-10 years. This would not be possible without the reasonable rents provided by Network Rail.
Second within the community we provide a creative and social hub with the businesses around us – the high street is dead, it’s boring and homogenous – railway arches have reinvented the high street – they have built hot spots of creation and collaboration all over the UK, but they are delicate and need nurturing.
We support each other and don’t push each other out – we buy local and support other UK businesses that make a change on the ground and move industries forward. Many independent businesses use other local suppliers and with Brexit looming we need to support each other and use as many local businesses as possible.
Although we haven’t been in Gateshead long enough to see rent increases, we have seen the area re-energised over the last five or six years and are concerned after seeing other cities such as London and Manchester go through similar re-energisations that we will be victims of our own success unless action is taken! The displacement of the businesses that support our communities in areas of deprivation has to stop.
Gateshead is an area which has, in the past relatively struggled, however the railway arches where we are based have gone from a deserted, less desirable area, to a thriving hub which has given confidence to Wylam and Hadrian Border Breweries – two of the largest breweries in the region set up pubs and a huge shipping container village underneath the Tyne Bride. The spaces provided by Network Rail for businesses at reasonable rents are the catalyst in building a viable area for larger independent businesses which generates jobs and footfall in previously undesirable areas.
If this sale causes rents to rise further it will only push the small business out and destroy hot spots of culture and creativity as is already happening in other places. These businesses will move further out of town centres into alternative accommodation at reasonable rents leaving centres deserted and pushing ingenuity into industrial estates and other harder to access areas.
Guardians of the Arches
The Guardians of the Arches campaign is important as it has not only given us a combined voice, but has created a network of businesses that have been able to connect. The campaign shows that independent businesses can come together with other businesses they have never met and support each other without any competitive element – purely for the greater good, something that would never happen with corporate businesses.
The independent businesses in the arches provide a public service doing good for the public – they are an asset to the public and a resource which would be damaging nationally if the majority of the businesses which reside in the arches feel they have to close or can only survive by moving if the sale were to go ahead.
Network Rail are the largest providers of commercial business space for small to medium sized businesses in the UK – this sale and the threat of rent increases is giving uncertainty to all those businesses who use the arches. This uncertainty will hinder the development and growth of all these businesses – the exact opposite of what the UK needs right now.
By selling before talking to us, Network Rail are giving up a long term reliable income for short term gains.