Brixton Arches Shame

Don’t you hate it when your day off is interrupted by news that a central government organisation is socially cleansing small independent businesses from your locale?

Instead of heading home to watch Minder on ITV4 with a box of doughnuts you find yourself talking to worried, pissed off shop-owners with a rising sense of anger and injustice.

This was the news this week that Network Rail, a ‘not for dividend’ public sector limited company, is to serve eviction notices to businesses in every railway arch in the triangle of Brixton Station Road, Pope’s Road and Atlantic Road, Brixton (plus a further strip at the other end of Railton Road in Herne Hill).

Businesses will be given six months to vacate and have been told that the arches will then be repaired and refurbished over a period of 10-24 months.

‘So what?’ you might say, at first glance: Government policy is to re-generate high streets and National Rail is a government body. It’s just co-ordinated progress. And many of the business affected would agree with you – these owners are after all entrepreneurs who understand the principles of investment and return. Indeed, many of the leaseholders have been badgering Network Rail for years in order to fix leaks and other structural problems.

Aman, C@fe Brixton
Aman, C@fe Brixton

But, as ever, it’s in the detail where things get murky. Not only will the businesses affected have to contend with the costs of being out of business (or relocating) for up to two years, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to return once work is completed and, if they are, it will be at vastly inflated rents.

What evidence is there for this? Well, in Herne Hill, Network Rail have already refurbished arches on Milkwood Road. Two of the Herne Hill businesses affected by the proposed eviction notices, Walters the butchers and Dickson’s the off-licence, currently pay £9k and £15k per annum for their leases, respectively. The newly re-furbished arches on Milkwood Road, however, go for between £30k and £40k, between two and four times as much.

‘We won’t be able to afford such increases,’ says Aman of C@fe Brixton on Brixton Station Road, ‘And they know that. They are pushing us out.’

And if local, independent businesses cannot afford such increases then the question is, who can? The answer, of course, is corporate chains with deep pockets, ready credit lines and grand economies of scale: NeroCostaBucks and other generic high street retailers; maybe a betting shop or a Giraffe if we’re lucky.

‘I look up the street and I see a Moroccan place, Eritrean, Portuguese, Jamaican, Brazilian… The diversity will be lost,’ says Aman. ‘The thing that makes the place special.’

‘It’s all about the money,’ says Soliman of the Moroccan Cafe (main picture). ‘Money, money, money. Not the community, not the businesses.’

Herne Hill businesses also affected
Herne Hill businesses also affected

When I wrote about the Dulwich Estate destroying our local pubs it was with impotent rage as they are a land and property-owning charity answerable to no-one but themselves. But Network Rail is a government-run public body (its CEO, Mark Carne, was appointed by the Secretary of State and is accountable to Parliament) and so at some level they can be invited out into the open to explain their actions.

A petition calling for a proper consultation has, in a matter of days, received more than 15,000 signatures and some traders are already reporting a more conciliatory approach being taken by Network Rail. But going in hard and then giving way a little is a classic negotiation tactic to end up with what you wanted in the first place.

We urge readers to sign the petition in order to keep the pressure on Network Rail and Lambeth Council, who have it within their powers to intervene at the planning stage.

After all, it’s worth remembering that Brixton Brewery is also on Brixton Station Road, a little further along. It’s one thing for cafes and retail shops to be uprooted, but if they come for the brewery, it’s war.

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  • bootsyjam

    Rent is the hidden factor in high prices across the UK and especially in London. In order to make enough money to make a profit (which is what businesses do) then imagine how much the same businesses would have to charge under the new rent levels. Result=higher prices. Yet another factor regarding high prices in London thanks to rich foreign buyers buying property to diversify their assets away from bank accounts in order to protect their wealth. More competition=higher prices for everyone. Something has to give-a good start would be either ban foreign ownership of London properties or to introduce a new tax that both prohibits new buying whilst raising decent amounts of revenue if people still press ahead with a purchase.

  • threehundredbeers

    It’s easy to get all knee-jerk angry about this sort of thing, until you remember that the “refurbished arches on Milkwood Road” have (with one irksome exception) been fully repopulated with exactly what you’d call “local, independent businesses”, including ones that were trading there before the cleanup. Not a single “generic high street retailer” has moved in and on balance, it’s a huge improvement.

    The stretch down Railton Road is an absolute eyesore too, shamefully undermining the tireless work the local community have put into reinvigorating the area surrounding the station. It desperately needs attention.

    Incidentally, I don’t think Brixton Brewery are affected by any current plans.

    • With half the arches lying empty, dormant or used by the ‘irksome exception’ I can only hope Milkwood Road is not a blueprint for the future. No, Brixton Brewery is not affected (yet).

      • threehundredbeers

        Late reply, apologies. But even a year ago there was not a single empty or dormant arch along there. I support your cause, but I fear that simply making stuff up like that weakens the argument.

        • Indeed there was. I didn’t have to make it up, I walked past and counted, as you could have done.

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