The Brixton railway arches are home to approximately 50 businesses in my constituency, and support approximately 150 full and part time jobs. The majority of the businesses have been in the arches for a very long time, and the owners and staff are drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds. The arches are integral to the identity of Brixton town centre, the businesses serve our area extremely well, and they are a key part of the community in Brixton.
Network Rail has, for a long period of time, not been a responsible landlord. The businesses report having had a very poor response when they have contacted Network Rail about leaks, blocked drains, infestations and other problems, and many have had to pay themselves for works for which Network Rail should have taken responsibility. I would like to place on record how regrettable it is that this historic neglect has now led to a situation where significant major works are necessary.
I have met with many of the businesses who occupy the arches, and with Network Rail, on several occasions during the preparation of the planning application, but following these meetings I remain concerned about four aspects of Network Rail’s plans and I hope that the committee will do everything possible to address them today:
First, I am concerned about the change of use from A1 (shops and retail) to A3 (food and drink). The evening economy in Brixton is at saturation point, and the combining of smaller units into larger units as Network Rail has proposed, will add considerably to an already pressurised situation. Residents complain in large numbers about noise and anti-social behaviour as a consequence of Brixton’s night time economy, and the committee should take these concerns into account in determining this application. In my view, an increase in the amount of A3 floorspace in the arches is not appropriate.
Second, I am very concerned about Network Rail’s proposal to undertake the works to the arches in two large phases, requiring vacant possession of whole blocks of arches at a time. While I am glad that alternative accommodation has been found for some businesses, there are still businesses for whom temporary accommodation has not been found and who will therefore be forced to pack up for at least a year. The closure of the whole of the arches at the same time would also have a significant impact on the wider town centre, including market traders on Brixton Station Road, Brixton Village and businesses along Atlantic Road. The works risk creating a ‘dead’ zone in the heart of Brixton town centre which will have a much wider impact than on the arches businesses alone. I therefore urge the committee to place a condition on the planning consent to require the work to be undertaken in a series of smaller phases, to enable better continuity of trading and protect the vibrancy of the trading environment for all town centre businesses.
Third, throughout the preparation of the planning application, many businesses have been very concerned about the proposed rent. While I acknowledge that considerable progress has been made on this issue, some businesses remain concerned about the level of rent which has been offered to them should they wish to return to the arches after the works have been completed. Many of the businesses trade in low cost goods, providing an affordable retail offer which serves local people very well. There is a limit to the extent to which traders can raise their prices or diversify their product range in order to generate more income, and for some the increases will reach an unsustainable threshold. The current proposed formula was devised prior to the EU referendum, which has resulted in great uncertainty for the UK economy including the possibility of a recession which would have a dampening effect on commercial rents. I therefore urge the Council to do everything possible through conditions on the planning application to require Network Rail to set rent levels which are sustainable for the current traders, including a commitment that should market rents fall significantly, the formula, including the stepped increases, will be adjusted to reflect this.
Finally, the planning application acknowledges the duty of development proposals under the Further Alterations to the London Plan to ‘protect and enhance facilities and services that meet the needs of particular groups and communities’. The Brixton arches traders are exactly such a group – providing jobs for people from a very diverse range of backgrounds and serving Brixton’s diverse communities extremely well. This is particularly the case amongst businesses based in the arches who do not currently let their premises directly from Network Rail. These businesses will be amongst the most disadvantaged by the proposals, since they are not eligible to receive compensation and are therefore reliant on the good will of their landlord. There is no guarantee that the proposals as they currently stand offer a future for these businesses. I therefore urge the Council to consider what further safeguards can be put in place to protect the position of some of the businesses who do not currently have a direct relationship with Network Rail but who are nevertheless an important part of the arches community and retail offer, to enable them to continue trading and to return to the arches on a formalised basis when the works are completed.
I accept that Network Rail has a responsibility to invest in and repair the arches. But in doing this, everything possible must be done to ensure that the works sustain and improve the trading environment for the existing businesses. I hope that the Council will use every lever it has available to it through the planning process to secure the best possible outcomes for the current Brixton arches business, who are a vital part of our community and economy in Brixton.