Guardians of the Arches win support of Labour party at Parliament meeting over Network Rail sale
- Credit: Archant
London Fields arches traders took their fight against Network Rail to Parliament last night and won the backing of top Labour MPs, including leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Small businesses in the area, and elsewhere in Hackney, formed the Guardians of the Arches trade group early last year after being hit with 200 per cent rent hikes by the rail company, first revealed in the Gazette.
Many have now been forced out, but with help from the New Economics Foundation and the East End Trades Guild the campaign has snowballed, and today has hundreds of members from across the country.
The firms – which include garages, upholsterers and caterers – believe the rent hikes are a result of Network Rail looking to raise the market value ahead of a mass sale of its arches – a sale they are now trying to stop.
Speaking at the meeting in Parliament, Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier told dozens of traders who had travelled from as far and wide as Gateshead and Manchester that a £1.2billion sale was set to take place in August.
Ms Hillier, who also chairs the public accounts committee, has been involved in the campaign from the start, and was invited to speak at the meeting alongside traders and Big Issue founder and peer John Bird, who has backed the campaign.
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Also watching on, after voting on the EU Withdrawal Bill, were Mr Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald and shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.
They all signed a letter to transport secretary Chris Grayling calling on him to stop the sale of the arches and give traders more of a say in their future.
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Ms Hillier said she had been looking at Network Rail’s excuses for the “sell off of the family silver”.
“There’s been an over commitment,” she said. “They promised to build too many things on the railway and there isn’t enough money to do it. So they’ve done a deal, a devil’s pact if you like, with Chris Grayling, to fill the gap.
“And they need to fill the gap with £1.8bn of asset sales. And the arches which you and others inhabit are worth £1.2bn.”
She added all of the arches in the country were being sold off to one bidder on a 999-year lease. “Our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren won’t be alive then,” she said. “It is effectively selling it off for good.”
Ms Hillier said the bidding was now down to 30 firms, mostly pension companies.
She continued: “What I would like to see is a delay in sale and Network Rail and the department for transport go back to the table talking with you, local placemakers – councils or local landlords – and selling off parcels.
“So let’s say in a dream world Hackney Council buys the arches in Hackney. It understands the groove and the grain and how businesses like E5 Bakehouse have emerged, how the garages have been supporting local businesses and local people for some time.
“We would have more control, and you may not like the rent increases, but there would be a sense of locality.
“Tonight is a rallying cry. It is not going to be an easy fight. Of all secretaries of state Chris Grayling is a man with cloth ears.
“I stand with you and I know my colleagues will join me in seeking a meeting with Chris Grayling and Network Rail.”
In March, London Fields firms Chu’s Garage and Sharif Auto Services were part of a group given a two-week deadline to agree to new terms. Both are now going to arbitration, where the rent levels will be set independently.
Both were also at the meeting. Mirajul Choudhury from Sharif Auto Services sat on the panel, which was chaired by E5 Bakehouse founder Ben Mackinnon, and spoke about the 300pc rent increase he and his uncle Ali Sharif were hit with.
“We had discussions with them and they refused to cooperate,” he said. “Their final conditions were a 250pc increase backdated to 2016. That will put us out of business.”