Supporting Brixton Arches Traders - Update

I have been consistent in my support for the Brixton Arches Traders since Network Rail began consulting last year on proposals to terminate their existing leases in order to undertake a major refurbishment programme.  There is no doubt that the arches are in a poor state of repair and that work needs to be done, but it is extremely disappointing that at every stage, Network Rail have failed to listen and respond to the concerns that the traders have expressed and are continuing to progress a scheme which has the potential to have a devastating impact on Brixton town centre.  Network Rail recently submitted a planning application for the works they wish to undertake.  I have written to the Council to object the planning application.  Please see the full text of my letter below:

Brixton Railway Arches, Planning Application Objection

I am writing to make a formal objection to the planning application reference 16/00868/FUL submitted by Network Rail for the railway arches on Brixton Station Road and Atlantic Road.  I have met with many of the businesses who occupy the arches, and with Network Rail on a number of occasions during the preparation of the planning application, and I am concerned that the issues that have been raised by the businesses have not been adequately addressed.

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 business owners and staff are drawn from a very diverse range of backgrounds.  The arches are integral to the identity of Brixton town centre, the businesses serve our local area extremely well, and they are a key part of the community in Brixton.

It is clear that the arches are in need of investment and physical improvement.  The brickwork is in a poor condition and many of the businesses report having had significant repairs issues for many years. However, it is also clear, that Network Rail has not, for a long period of time, been a responsible landlord to its tenant businesses.  Many businesses report having had a very poor response from Network Rail when they have contacted their landlord about leaks, blocked drains, infestations and other problems, and many businesses also report that they have had to arrange and pay themselves to have urgent repairs completed on many occasions.  It is also clear that many businesses have not had regular, incremental rent reviews.

I would therefore like to place on record how regrettable it is that this historic neglect has now led to a situation where such major works are necessary, apparently requiring vacant possession of the arches, and businesses facing very significant rent increases should they wish to return after the works.

I wish to object to the planning application on the following grounds:

  1. Change of use.  The plan submitted in the Design and Access Statement shows 7 units with A3 use currently, and one A4 use, with the vast majority of the remaining units being in A1 use.  The Network Rail planning application proposes 13 units with A3 uses and one A4 use.  This represents a very substantial increase in the number of A3 uses in the arches, and a significant change in the character of the arches from a predominantly retail environment to an environment with a significant proportion of A3 uses.  There has been a very significant growth in A3 uses in Brixton town centre in recent years, and in this context it is important that the right balance is maintained between shops which provide for the everyday needs of local residents, and a thriving night time economy.  I am very concerned that these proposals will tip the balance too far towards night time uses, to the detriment of the everyday retail offer, and I urge the Council not to grant planning consent for such a significant change of use. A critical mass of A1 use units is essential to ensure that footfall to one shop benefits the other shops and this has the potential to be lost if there is an over concentration of A3 use.
  2. Phasing.  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. To date Network Rail has failed to provide viable alternative premises during this time, only offering alternative railway arches far from the retail centre of Brixton. This will have a detrimental impact on many of the businesses, who will be forced to pack up for a year or possibly permanently, and it will also have a devastating impact on the wider town centre, particularly businesses including market traders on Brixton Station Road, Brixton Village, and businesses on Atlantic Road.  The works will create 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 Council not to grant planning permission for a proposal which does not break the works down into a series of smaller phases, to enable some continuity of trading and protects the vibrancy of the trading environment for all town centre businesses.
  3. Affordability of rent.  Many of the businesses have expressed to me their strong concerns about the rent levels which have been offered to them should they wish to return to the arches after the refurbishment works have been completed.  Although the rental increases that have been offered are modest for the first year, they rapidly increase over subsequent years, to reach market rent.  As a consequence of Network Rail’s neglect of regular rent increases, the gap between the rents that the businesses have been paying and Network Rail’s assessment of 'market rent’ is in many cases very significant.  Many of the businesses trade in low cost goods, providing a valued retail offer which serves local people very well.  There is a limit to the extent to which they can raise their prices or diversify their product range in order to increase their income, and for many of them, the large increases in rent proposed would appear to be unmanageable.  I therefore urge the Council to do everything possible to ensure that conditions are placed on any planning consent to require Network Rail to maintain rental levels which are affordable for the current Brixton Arches traders.
  4. Equalities.  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.  There is no guarantee that the proposals as they currently stand would protect either the current range of employment opportunities or the current mix of shops and services, and I therefore urge the Council not to approve this application until further safeguards have been put in place.

During my meetings with Network Rail, I have consistently been disappointed at the extent to which they have responded to the concerns that I and the businesses have raised, and consistently failed to recognise any responsibility for the current situation in terms of their historic neglect of their property.  It seems to me that the Brixton arches businesses are being asked to pay the consequences of this historic neglect, and that is not, in my view acceptable.

I would be grateful if these concerns could be taken into account in the determination of the planning application.  Given the level of opposition expressed by members of the public to these proposals, it is also important that the decision is taken at a planning committee, and not under the scheme of delegation and I would therefore formally request that you take the necessary steps to ensure that this happens.