Politics

Light at the end of the tunnel for Guardians of the Arches campaigners?

Transport Minister Jo Johnson agrees to consider local alternatives to the £1.5billion sale of Network Rail’s railway arches following a meeting with arches tenants

Ronnie Grant and John Bird at the Guardians of the Arches event

Ronnie Grant speaks out at the Guardians of the Arches event. Image: Sarah Ainslie

In a move that could be a game changer for railway arch tenants across the country, Transport Minister Jo Johnson has agreed to consider alternatives to the one-off, £1.5billion sale of Network Rail’s 5,476 railway arches.

According to the Guardians of the Arches tenants’ association, Johnson has committed to seriously listen to alternative proposals to the one-off sale of the whole estate by the end of this year.

The decision to explore options including selling arches to local or regional authorities, or allowing tenants to bid for the arches themselves, follows a meeting brokered by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns between the minister, Network Rail, and campaigners.

The Guardians of the Arches tenants' association with Transport Minister Jo Johnson and Ian Mearns MP
The Guardians of the Arches tenants' association with Transport Minister Jo Johnson

Leni Jones, co-owner of Rosso Corse and co-founder of the Guardians of the Arches, said: “In just a few short months we have gone from nothing to getting the government to consider an alternative to this sale. That shows the power of small businesses coming together and working to protect their interests and the communities they serve.”

George Grant, whose father Ronnie (above, with John Bird) first rented a railway arch for his Clapham North MOT 60 years ago, also attended the meeting on behalf of the Guardians of the Arches.

He tells The Big Issue that the first surprise was that Network Rail actually turned up. “We thought we had 15 minutes with Jo Johnson. But when we we went in to the meeting, there was the board of Network Rail. We had no idea,” he says. 

“But it was a very potent argument that we had, and Network Rail had no answers. From my point of view I gave them hell in a very constructive way. I felt very empowered. I felt I was representing hundreds of people who over the years have been shat upon from a great height

Network Rail are in advance talks with four bidders hoping to buy 5,476 railway arches across the country. But in recent months the campaign by the Guardians of the Arches has been making a big noise. Not only are they trying to prevent the sale in its current form, but they are also fighting rent rises of as much as 345 per cent.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in June: “Small businesses around the country are under threat from Network Rail’s plan to sell 5,500 railway arches. The sell-off must be stopped.”

Hackney Council’s willingness to consider purchasing the arches in its borough shows that this isn’t a done deal

And last week, Hackney Mayor Phil Glanville outlined his support for a localised approach, which would allow local councils to bid for railway arches in their area. This approach was welcomed by The Big Issue founder John Bird, who has been strongly supportive of the Guardians of the Arches campaign.

“Hackney Council’s willingness to consider purchasing the arches in its borough shows that this isn’t a done deal,” said Bird.

“Local authorities play a vital role in boosting the prosperity of their smaller businesses. So let other councils follow Hackney’s lead, where the local mayor has shown he understands the commercial and social value that the arches businesses bring to our communities.”

I asked Jo Johnson outright: ‘Will you please stop the sale?’

Now it is over to the Transport Minister.

“I asked Jo Johnson outright: ‘Will you please stop the sale?'” says George Grant. “His words were ‘I can’t talk about it at this meeting’.

“But it was a phenomenal feat of campaigning for us to get in front of the minister. The team from Guardians of the Arches are a crack troupe now. And Jo Johnson realises we mean business.”

Images: Sarah Ainslie

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