A part of London renowned for its cultural vibrancy and ethnic mix is under threat, according to local business owners and residents, as what have been labelled “gentrification plans” by Network Rail force small shopkeepers out of their premises while a major regeneration project is carried out.
The busy commercial area of the Arches in the south London borough of Brixton has long been synonymous with the diversity the capital is proud to trumpet, with a wide mix of immigrants and nationals giving the area a sense of identity not seen elswhere in the city.
But now, some are facing hardship as they are forced to vacate premises there for up to a year while Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales, implements its regeneration plan.
Planning permission was granted by Lambeth Council at a meeting this month to allow Network Rail to refurbish the railway arches that house many shops along Atlantic Road and Brixton Station Road.
Although the company says the traders have been offered compensation “above and beyond the minimum we are required to offer” many store owners say they will be put out of business by the plan.
The work will mean that about 30 traders and tenants of the arches beneath Brixton railway station are evicted for a year while reconstruction work is carried out. Many say they will not be able to afford the rents once the work is completed.
The company says they have been offered discounted stepped rents over seven years “so they will not be paying the current 2015 rent levels until 2024”.
“We are pleased that, to date, three quarters of our tenants, who were given first option on the refurbished units, have decided to return,” it adds.
According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, however, although Network Rail has promised the tenants a right to return, it is separately seeking to break their leases and impose rent increases.
The Londonist website said a Network Rail spokesman had confirmed to it that rents would be increasing. “We are part-funded by the tax-payer and partly by fares so it would be wrong of us not to seek to recoup the substantial investment we’ll be making,” the Londonist quoted the spokesman as saying.
Lambeth council’s decision, which came after 18 months of fierce community resistance including large demonstrations across Brixton, removes one of the final barriers to the scheme. Brixton is a historical cultural hub for African-Caribbeans and other minority groups, but rising rents, redeveloped shopping areas and an influx of wealthier residents have led to claims the established community is being forced out by gentrification of the area.
At the council meeting this month, Andy Simmonds read out a statement on behalf of Helen Hayes, the local MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, who was unavailable as she was on a family holiday. Ms Hayes’ constituency covers the Brixton Arches area.
“Brixton Arches is home to 50 businesses, and it employs around 150 people. People are drawn in by the diverse background. It is integral to Brixton town centre,” Ms Hayes’ statement said.
“Network Rail has not been a responsible landlord. I’ve met with the businesses, and with Network Rail. Following these meetings, I still have concerns over the change of use from shops to restaurants.
“I am concerned that a ‘dead-zone’ will be created in the heart of Brixton during the redevelopment,” she said.
In its application, Network Rail had insisted: “We want to retain the unique character of Brixton. So, in addition to those tenants wishing to return, we will be looking to attract a good mix of businesses which will maintain the area as a popular visitor destination and serve the local community’s needs.”
Traders objecting to the move said the company had changed its position regarding the plans from “refurbishment” to “regeneration”.
One of them, who gave his name as Giorgio, told the meeting: “All of the documents provided by Network Rail state refurbishment only – not redevelopment. This is not interchangeable. We demand that the committee reject the application until the proper consultation has been carried out.”
The Network Rail spokesman Steve taylor countered: “The arches are in poor condition and are in need of regeneration. We need to strip out all of the units. The aim is to complete this within a year. We will create attractive shop fronts. We can accommodate all existing businesses that are planning to return.”
Locals, however, were not appeased.
“Nine hundred and forty-seven objections have been submitted against this application; only fifteen have been offered in support,” said James Talor, a resident of the borough.
“Reclaim Brixton [a protest group] was born out of Brixton Arches. Within two weeks we had 5,000 people gathering in Windrush Square. I saw grown men cry on that day. The traders didn’t know that they were loved so much.”
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