Network Rail is selling off Britain’s railways arches. Small businesses could pay the price

Brixton. Image: Getty.

In an attempt to tackle its debts, Network Rail intends to sell off its 4,455 railway arches – worth more than £1bn – to a single private developer. Potential buyers include Goldman Sachs and the Wellcome Trust, Blackstone and Terra Firma. A group of arch tenants – The Guardians of the Arches – has teamed up with the New Economics Foundation and the East End Trades Guild to present a petition to the UK government, asking for the sale to be called off.

Under the custodianship of Network Rail, small businesses have long found refuge under the arches. Research in London has revealed how cheaper than market rates have allowed traditional firms, such as mechanics and metal workers, to remain in urban areas beset by rising prices. Meanwhile, the spare spaces provided by the arches have allowed new creative makers - breweries, bakeries, cheesemakers and the like – to flourish.

Railway arch rents have, in fact, already been rising at alarming rates in some parts of London, as Network Rail tries to bring them in line with neighbouring commercial values. But now there are fears that a new private owner might be unscrupulous in setting rents, and force out smaller, lower-value businesses.

A lucky anomaly

This would be a shame. Railway arches have long been a lucky anomaly in the UK – a remnant of publicly owned commercial space within a property market dominated by fierce private sector competition. Selling the arches will mean losing a (perhaps accidentally acquired) public policy lever – the ability to protect and encourage small business in cities, as commercial rents rise.

Corporate takeover? Image: tj.blackwell/Flickr/creative commons.

As well as being relatively affordable, railway arches have traditionally offered a number of other spatial advantages to their tenants. Their adaptable interiors and open structure invites architectural experimentation; for instance, adding partitions and mezzanines. As they grow, businesses can also expand into adjacent arches.

This adaptability may be one reason why some arch tenants remain in the same place for a long time. One set of arches used by taxi repair firms in Bethnal Green, London, for example, has hosted this same industry for over 20 years. The arches are often beset by problems – including noise (from trains thundering above) and damp – leading arch tenants to argue that they should not be leased at the same commercial rates as neighbouring buildings.

But the open and messy spaces of the arches are often perfect for so-called “dirty creatives”, who find it difficult to find a place to work alongside offices or flats, due to the noise or dust they create. Arches often have continuous facades, which means they can function like industrial high streets – they are accessible to the passing public, allowing arch tenants to both produce and sell directly to customers.

Coffee makers and car mechanics. Image: Ania Mendrek/Flickr/creative commons.

Unlike segregated industrial estates, arches are often found within residential areas, bringing commercial life into the neighbourhoods. The large doorways and open fronts of railway arches encourage communication between businesses, which may in turn help small businesses to innovate and grow.

Help small businesses stay

The plight of the railway arches highlights a broader lack of affordable commercial space for manufacturers and repairers in British cities. An ongoing research project called Cities of Making – involving universities from London, Brussels and Rotterdam – found that manufacturing firms are having to leave inner city London, due to a lack of affordable space and rising business rates.


Even maker spaces – the small studios or workshops heralded for offering exciting new opportunities for people to start up small-scale production lines through sharing new technologies – are being priced out or forced to contract in east London.

While negotiations on the Network Rail sale still have a long way to go, one option that the government might consider is inserting a clause to stipulate that a percentage of the railway arches (wherever they are located) are let with affordable rents. Another possibility – even if the sale goes ahead – might be for local authorities to be given the option to sublet sets of arches in their boroughs to safeguard space for small businesses and help existing firms to remain.

The ConversationIn an era of rising inequalities, such actions may be essential to creating inclusive growth, and preserving a local economy that provides a diversity of jobs and services.

Francesca Froy, PhD Candidate, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.