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Railway arch businesses send red signal to minister over Network Rail’s ‘fire sale’

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 August 2018 | UPDATED: 12:17 15 August 2018

Boarded-up railway arches in Bethnal Green left empty for years following Network Rail rent rises. Picture: Mike Brooke

Boarded-up railway arches in Bethnal Green left empty for years following Network Rail rent rises. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

Small businesses that rent railway arches which are soon to be sold off have written to Transport Minister Jo Johnson setting out their demands for the future of the Network Rail properties.

Empty arch in alley off Bancroft Road waiting for a tenant. Picture: Mike BrookeEmpty arch in alley off Bancroft Road waiting for a tenant. Picture: Mike Brooke

Many of the small firms occupying space under the railway viaducts have had to give up arches because of rents shooting up as much as 350 per cent in some cases.

It has left some arches remaining empty for years, or even being used for illegal raves in Bethnal Green and occupied by squatters.

The Guardians of the Arches campaign group backed by the East End Trades Guild and the New Economics Foundation has set out 13 proposals to make sure the properties are “managed fairly, transparently and with tenant involvement”.

They want the grand sale to be put on ‘hold’ to allow other bidders like local authorities to buy some of them—rather than all 4,455 around the country sold off in one lump.

Andrew Higgins and his team converting empty railway arch in Malcolm Place for temporary community use. Picture: Mike BrookeAndrew Higgins and his team converting empty railway arch in Malcolm Place for temporary community use. Picture: Mike Brooke

The campaigners are calling for an audit to make sure rents are set “fairly and transparently”, never more than 80 per cent of an equivalent conventional commercial space and no increase above 20pc over three years.

A not-for-profit community organisation, meanwhile, is already converting one empty arch in Malcolm Place, under the Liverpool Street main-line through Bethnal Green, into a student centre on a short term lease.

“This arch has been used for illegal raves and by squatters,” work coordinator Andrew Higgins tells tomorrow’s East London Advertiser.

“We want to create a café, a bar and a community work space, so students can come in and set up base here.

Work in progress under Liverpool Street main line through Bethnal Green to create a community hub. Picture: Mike BrookeWork in progress under Liverpool Street main line through Bethnal Green to create a community hub. Picture: Mike Brooke

“This area has a lot of student housing and there’s a hotel nearby.

“But these empty arches attract squatters and fly-tippers dumping rubbish as well as illegal raves.”

The Guardians group met the rail minister on July 18, when the government agreed to consider the group’s alternative proposals, including some arches being sold separately to other buyers.

Hackney Council, for example, is interested in taking over some arches on the Chingford and Enfield lines through London Fields and Hackney Downs. Mayor Phil Glanville wrote to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling with interest in buying them.

Desolate arches left empty in Malcoolm Place. Picture: Mike BrookeDesolate arches left empty in Malcoolm Place. Picture: Mike Brooke

But Network Rail wants to sell all 4,455 arches throughout the country as one commercial business on a 150-year lease, thought to be valued at £1.5bn.

The campaigners point to research by the New Economics Foundation showing businesses based in railway arches contribute £725m a year to the UK economy.

Yet the businesses are being slapped with huge rent increases that they can’t afford.

The largest rise the campaign has uncovered is a demand for 345pc more, sent to a 93-year-old mechanic who has been running a garage under an arch in Clapham for the last 60 years. The man received a letter to raise his rent from £33,000 a year to £147,000.

An open letter with 8,000 signatures has been sent to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling asking him to pause the sale and meet tenants.

Four bidders remain on the shortlist to buy the entire stock of arches in the sale that is set to be completed by the end of the year.

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