Guardians of the Arches: Transport minister Jo Johnson agrees to consider alternatives to Network Rail sale

Traders from Chu's Garage, E5 Bakery, Maxwell & Pinborough, and Sulamen Ozer. Picture: Polly Hancock

Traders from Chu's Garage, E5 Bakery, Maxwell & Pinborough, and Sulamen Ozer. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Transport minister Jo Johnson has agreed to consider alternatives to Network Rail’s impending sale of its 4,555 railway arches to one buyer.

Members from The Guardians of the Arches, a growing group of 300 business owners formed in London Fields, met Mr Johnson and Network Rail chiefs on Wednesday to argue their side.

Traders say plans to sell all the arches in the UK on a 99-year lease will leave them at the mercy of a faceless corporate landlord with little care for their livelihoods.

Instead they wanted to delay the sale so they can be involved in the process and come up with alternatives, a proposal the minister committed to taking seriously.

One alternative is for groups of arches to be sold to local authorities, an idea Hackney mayor Phil Glanville told transport secretary Chris Grayling he would be interested in.

The other option would be for stringent conditions to be attached to any sale to protect tenants.

Will Brett of the New Economics Foundation, which is supporting the Guardians, said: “With local authority leaders offering to buy the arches in their patch, and with the government prepared to consider alternative ways of managing the estate, we’re hopeful the arches can be saved for the benefit of the small businesses who work in them and the communities who rely on them.”

The Gazette has been at the forefront of the Guardians campaign since the group was formed at Chu’s Garage in Helmsley Place last year to fight rent hikes of up to 300 per cent. Nhi Chu was at the meeting on Wednesday, alongside Ben Mackinnon of E5 Bakehouse.

Network Rail has denied accusations rent increases were aiming to raise the value of its arches ahead of the sale and says it is required to get best value for the taxpayer.

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The transport firm is hoping to raise £1.2bn plus to help plug a £1.8bn deficit, as per an agreement with the government.

The firm announced on Friday it was in the final stages of the sale, with four bidders left. One bidder was reported to have pulled out earlier this month, allegedly due to the strength of the campaign.

Trader Leni Jones, co-owner of Rosso Corse in Bethnal Green, added: “In just a few short months we have gone from nothing to getting the government to consider an alternative to this sale. That shows the power of small businesses coming together and working to protect their interests and the communities they serve.

“The potential buyers of the arches are taking notice of us and must be wondering what they’re letting themselves in for!”