Shame on them. Shame on them all.
Last year, Network Rail sold off some of its property portfolio for £1.46bn. This moved it from public ownership to private. When this deal was in the offing it became clear that it would have a profound impact on the work and livelihoods of thousands of people who for years had been tenants of Network Rail. They had taken poor locations, mostly in railway arches, 5,476 arches across Britain, places largely unfancied and unused; they made them sing, grew businesses in them and lives out of them. Mechanics, small shops, latterly micro-breweries. Working people making a living and building communities. Small but vital. The leases they had were relatively cheap, because they weren’t desirable at first.
But Network Rail needed to plug a hole in their budgets and realised that they had an asset worth trading. So on the quiet, at first, they tried to sell them off. The traders, smelling a rat, mobilised. They suspected that following the sell-off, rents would shoot up and they’d be out of business. And all the local communities would suffer. They formed Guardians of the Arches, a tenants’ pressure group united to ask Network Rail to think again. The deal was overseen by the Department of Transport, under Chris Grayling. So what could possibly go wrong…
We got behind the Guardians of The Arches because we knew it wasn’t right what Network Rail were doing. We shared their concerns.
Big Issue founder John Bird hosted an event at the House of Lords to see if they could agitate the legislator to reconsider. We ran stories, we showed up, we made demands. It looked like we were all getting somewhere. In July, noises came from the then junior minister Jo Johnson that they were prepared to listen to alternatives to the sell-off of the whole estate. This didn’t happen.
In September the sale went through. Financial services and investment firms Blackstone and Telereal Trillium became the new owners. Still, there were some positive noises about tenants being listened to and fears over massive rent hikes being allayed.