Campaigners fighting railway arches sell-off deliver petition to transport secretary

Arch rivals: Campaigners deliver their petition opposing the sell-off. Photograph: Sarah Ainslie

Thousands of signatures were delivered to the Department for Transport yesterday in support of businesses operating out of Hackney’s railway arches.

The Guardians of the Arches is a national campaign group, which started as a tenants’ collective in this borough, protesting the planned over-£1 billion sell-off of Network Rail’s property portfolio.

The group argues such a move threatens the futures of small businesses housed in railway arches across the country, and having held a meeting in Parliament to plead their case on 12 June, the Guardians delivered a petition with almost 7,000 signatures to the Department of Transport.

Local businessman Ben MacKinnon, who runs the E5 Bakehouse in a railway arch near London Fields station, said: “Chris Grayling [the Secretary of State for Transport] ought to halt the sale and consider community or local government ownership of the arches.

“The asset can provide valuable income to the government or local communities for hundreds of years, instead of making a quick buck now to plug a funding hole.

“Not only that, but the prospective owners will have a monopoly over the arches, often the only large, industrial space available in many areas, and hence can destroy businesses by hiking up rents.”

Ben MacKinnon

Flour power: Ben MacKinnon, founder of E5 Bakehouse. Photograph: E5 Bakehouse

Network Rail, which owns, operates and develops Britain’s rail infrastructure, is 70 per cent funded by network grants from the Department for Transport and Transport Scotland. A quarter of its income comes from track charges to train operators, with the remaining 5 per cent coming from its national property and station retail portfolio of over 8,200 properties.

The company announced at the end of 2017 the sale of its commercial property business, claiming this would allow it to “focus on its core business of improving the passenger experience and running a safe, reliable and growing railway and help fund its upgrade plan”.

Network Rail currently leases out 5,500 arches across the country, making it the UK’s largest landowner for small businesses, according to figures from the New Economics Foundation.

Ahead of the sell-off, business owners have reported spikes in their rents of between 250-350 per cent, and campaigners are now hoping for a meeting with Mr Grayling to discuss how their futures could be affected by the present course.

Will Brett, speaking on behalf of think-tank the New Economics Foundation, which supports the campaign, said: “Time is running out for businesses based in arches. If this sale goes through, they will be left defenceless against whatever plans the new owner might have for the portfolio.

“If the government truly values small business, it needs to pause this sale and meet the Guardians of the Arches to discuss a more sustainable future.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport told the Citizen it has no plans to meet with the campaign group following the delivery of the petition.

You can find a link to the campaign group’s letter here

Update: this article was amended at 10:14 on Monday 2 July 2018 to include a response from the Department of Transport.