By Cllr Dontus Anyanwu, Lead Member for Community Relations and Labour Councillor for Coldharbour Ward.
In March 2015 Network Rail announced plans to refurbish Brixton Arches. They are home to a diverse mixture of businesses from cafes and clothes shops to bookmakers and fish-mongers. When I moved to Brixton in 1980, the Arches were one of the first places I visited as three of my cousins ran a grocers there called Jack's.
The shop is long gone and the area has changed a lot in the last thirty years but the Arches have suffered from years of under-investment by the landlord, Network Rail, which has left the units in need of considerable work.
Understandably, when the announcement was made many traders were unhappy with the prospect of having to relocate, even if only temporarily. In the months following, opposition to the plans hardened, including strong criticism of the council. There were marches, petitions and public meetings, sparked by genuine concern that the plans would change the character of Brixton. This fed into a wider unease about local people being squeezed out by rising rents and house prices.
We listened and made sure we turned the heat up on Network Rail. We made clear that the plans for refurbishment should maintain Brixton’s individual and unique character.
We pressed Network Rail to provide a fair offer to tenants. As a result of pressure from traders, local residents and councillors, they eventually put a better deal on the table. Individual compensation offers were made to tenants to tide them over during construction. They also agreed to discount rents for five years to keep the Arches affordable so that in years 1-3 tenants will pay 50% of market rent and full market rent will not be charged until year 8.
Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time talking to the traders and listening to their concerns. One issue I have picked up on is that some of the businesses who occupy the Arches are sub-tenants. Network Rail and the primary tenants have a responsibility to communicate to these sub-tenants but it’s clear a number of them feel that they have been left in the dark. After a meeting with Network Rail today, they have agreed to make an extra effort to go down to the Arches and speak to them to try and clear up any uncertainty.
Communication in general has not been good enough, starting with their failure to clearly set out the rationale for refurbishment and the steps they would take to ensure the distinctive character of the area would not be lost.
Once work starts that part of Brixton will look and feel quite different. Shops will be boarded up and it may feel quieter as customers go elsewhere. We were clear that we didn’t want all the Arches closed at once – and that is one of the reasons why we are pushing for a robust schedule of works to give confidence to traders, the local community and the Council that work will start as soon as possible and be completed on schedule.
While it's been far from plain sailing, by working together and challenging Network Rail we’ve been able to get a better deal for traders and Brixton as a whole. I'm looking forward to seeing some familiar faces trading from refurbished Arches when they re-open next year.