Opinion

Paul McNamee: The Arches cash grab is a scandal. We won't keep quiet

Enough of the duplicitous treatment of those who simply want to work and provide and do the right thing

Guardians of the Arches

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.

The lives of so many working people were ignored because Grayling’s department chased a quick buck

It was all rubbish. It was a dirty piece of business.

Last week the National Audit Office, Whitehall’s spending watchdog, published a report into the sale. They found that the impact of the sale on tenants was NOT considered. It was bluster and misdirection from the highest office. Clearly, they wanted this sale and while they said nice things on the face of it, the thing was a long-time done deal. Tenants were only considered right at the end of process, because a big enough stink had been kicked up. By then it was too late.

Shame on them all. The lives of so many working people were ignored because Grayling’s department chased a quick buck. A short-term gain that will impact thousands for years to come. It’s a grubby dark deal.

In other times, demands would be made for a deeper dive into what happened here. But that Brexit cloud is still the shadow on everything so these things pass by.

Enough. Enough of the tin ear of government. Enough of the duplicitous treatment of those who simply want to work and provide and do the right thing. What happened here is not right.

And we want to speak for all of you, everybody who knows they have right on their side, but they lack the elbows to make those in power listen. We will be your elbows. We will advocate and agitate and make a nuisance on your behalf. We will do it early and we will not relent. Now is the time.

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