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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.