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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.