Save Brixton Arches

 

The impact of proposed shop evictions
in Brixton’s Station and Atlantic Road arches

It is big fish eating small fish
- Kraiem Znaidi, employee at Cafe Rio

 

 

This paper discusses the impact of proposed evictions by Network Rail of businesses in Brixton's Atlantic Road and Station Road arches. It is based on interviews with managers and customers of those shops carried out by six local volunteers and coordinated by Brixton Pound.

 

Key points

  1. Long-standing businesses that operate under the railway arches along Atlantic and Brixton Station Road face at best huge upheaval and uncertainty, and at worst the end of their business and community ties in Brixton due to Network Rail’s plans to refurbish its archway units and command higher rents.
  2. People with over 30 different cultural heritages make up the business community on these roads, serving an even wider and more diverse customer base, the majority of which is low to middle income. An overwhelming majority have been there for over ten years, many of them for more than one generation.
  3. None of the businesses we interviewed said they’d  be able to operate in Brixton if forced to move out for a year (as proposed by Network Rail) and/or if rents increase significantly.
  4. Closures will have a much wider negative effect on the very diverse local communities served, and the social fabric of Brixton. All customers we spoke with were unhappy about the plans and would lose an important shopping outlet serving their needs.
  5. Traders and local residents are also disappointed with Lambeth Council, which in their view has failed to protect the interests of the community.
  6. Network Rail has ostensibly failed to communicate the rationale for their proposals or any detail about their plans and how they will impact individual units. Such lack of transparency prevents the traders to engage meaningfully in the process.
  7. We make recommendations for Network Rail, Lambeth Council and the traders as this process goes forward. We also suggest ways in which others who care about this issue can get involved.

 

Contents

 

1. Introduction and context

2. What the traders said

2. What customers said

3. How is the process going?

4. Why does all this matter?

5. Recommendations

6. Get involved!

Annexes
Traders interviewed
Customers interviewed
Interview questions

 

 

1. Introduction and context

1.1. Traders are facing eviction

Traders on Atlantic Road are facing eviction and an uncertain future after Network Rail decided to bring forward plans to refurbish the units in which their businesses are located. Although a publically-owned body, it appears that it is attempting to increase its commercial revenue having seen the private sector benefit from increased rents in Brixton.

As the landlord, Network Rail may be entitled to this course of action. However, and even if they do not appear to have a communities policy, as a major property owner it has a responsibility to ensure that its activities do not negatively impact on local communities.

MP for Streatham and Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna has articulated some of these arguments in a letter to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Claire Perry, where he has called on Network Rail “to act in a responsible way towards its tenants in the Brixton railway arches”, and that their social value be recognised.

Lambeth Council states that its ability to influence this process is limited. And yet, this issue should matter greatly to the Council. In its Community Plan 2013-2016, Lambeth Council sets out several key outcomes that might be undermined by Network Rail’s plans:

  1. All Lambeth communities feel they are valued and are part of their neighbourhoods
  2. People live in, work in and visit our vibrant and creative town centres
  3. People take greater responsibility for their neighbourhood

 

This development is also concerning for Lambeth’s approach to economic growth in the borough. “Jobs and growth” is the current agenda, but there has been little mention of the growth and employment generated by the businesses that currently trade from the arches. It is assumed that new, presumably larger businesses that would occupy refurbished units would boost jobs and growth in Brixton, but there is little accompanying analysis to demonstrate this; it merely leans on the dominant economic narrative of the day.

Yet analysis does exist, such as that conducted by the New Economics Foundation in Newham. Its ‘World on a Plate’ study details how businesses similar to those found in the arches are more likely to offer cheaper goods, a more diverse product range, generate twice as many jobs per sq foot (and jobs which involve a richer skillset and an opportunity to strike out alone and start a new business), and provide a particularly fertile environment for black and minority ethnic (BME) entrepreneurs who face particular barriers when starting businesses.

 

1.2. We conducted interviews to illustrate potential impact

This is an emotive issue for many; while the gentrification of Brixton has been taking place for some time, the businesses on this stretch of road are some of the remaining few businesses that represent, and serve, the diverse communities that have traditionally made up Brixton.

Over 20,000 people have signed a petition calling on Network Rail, together with Lambeth Council to reconsider this course of action and instead find a solution that enables these businesses, if willing, to stay in Brixton.

And big crowds came out to support the shops during the Reclaim Brixton weekend. 

 

So far, nobody has looked in depth at the impact that moving some or all of these businesses will have on the businesses themselves, and just as importantly, the communities who use them. 

We are six local residents concerned about the potential loss of these businesses, which along with many other people in our community, we regularly use. We collaborated with the Brixton Pound to look at the impact. 

We set out to speak with each of the affected businesses to find out exactly what the likely impact of their eviction would be. Do they have a future in Brixton? What chance of survival do they have away from the location where they have built up their customer base?

We also surveyed customers to find out what it would mean for them if these businesses were forced to leave the area. Would they no longer be served by the Brixton business community? If so, would this mean that they will have to go somewhere else? Who are these people, and where do they come from?

The aim of this paper is to illustrate the potential impact of the proposed evictions based on very strong indications from interviews with traders, their customers and community members. We do not have the resources to carry out a comprehensive study. However, we believe that our findings highlight the importance of carrying one out to fully assess community impact. We hope that Network Rail and Lambeth Council - both of which have more recently stated their concern about impact on local community - can take this analysis further.

 

2. What the traders said

2.1. Long-standing businesses serving diverse community needs

We conducted in-depth interviews with 14 traders, of whom 13 are potentially facing eviction and one is unsure. Business lines of the owners interviewed included food trade, cafes, clothing, textiles, footwear, beauty, religious books and groceries.

Half the traders interviewed have been operating in the arches for over 25 years, and all apart from one operated for over 10 years. Three are the second generation of a family run businesses (The Baron Menswear, Ashok Supermarket, A&C Continental Delicatessen). The rest are either run by local residents (Budget Carpets), or by people that came to Brixton when they saw an opportunity (e.g., Mohamed Kheddashe who opened Cafe Rio after working in chain cafes all his life). The cultural heritage of those working in the arches is incredibly mixed, covering 31 different backgrounds.

Some chose Brixton because of its unique character such as Alberto and Suliman who run the Moroccan café.

"This was a mixed community and we felt welcome". 
- Alberto Javier Sierra, Moroccan cafe, trading 5 years.

All of them are busy with customers throughout the day, every day of the week. Many of the owners have taken great risks to operate here and their livelihoods fully depend on the business.

“I always worked in catering business, 20 years before I came here, working in big companies like Cafe Rouge. I always wanted to open my own business. It happened that one of my friends had this place before me. I came to have a coffee and they said they wanted to sell. So I bought the business. All my savings for 20 years went into it”.
- Mohamed Kheddashe, owner of Cafe Rio, trading 10 years.

 “I used to live in Brixton, here since I was a baby.  I lived here and started to do business 40 years ago.”
- A shop owner (anonymous interview), trading 40 years

These businesses have very diverse customer bases - some serve almost exclusively the black community (The Baron Menswear), whilst others cover a broad variety of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. All serve a wide range of ages, and for the most part people of middle to low income.

The majority of the traders spoke about building personal relationships with their clientele, which in some cases also run for generations. All described their customers as generally local, and loyal. As Jose from A&C Continental Delicatessen points out:

“Brixton has become a place where you can do your weekly shopping as an alternative to the supermarket. This creates a sense of community that is highly valued by everyone. There is a human connection and the trust that is built with the small businesses is passed on from generation to generation”.
- Jose Cardoso, A&C Continental Delicatessen, trading 24 years.

All the traders feared that if the eviction goes ahead then important bonds that have taken years to build will be destroyed.

 

2.2. Eviction would lead to loss of businesses and livelihoods

 The majority of businesses believe it will be impossible, or very difficult to set up somewhere else in Brixton – especially if many of them look for new space at once. This is because rents in or near the high street have increased dramatically over the last few years and the availability of trading space is limited. Critically, many of the traders currently operating under the arches require a large space (e.g. Budget Carpets), or rely on their proximity to either the high street (e.g. A&C Continental Delicatessen) or the market area.

When asked about their scope to increase prices to manage possible higher rents, there were mixed reactions. Some said they would find this impossible as they would lose their current customer base; others felt the only way to do so would be to adapt their products and become more like a “boutique store”, in effect switching their approach entirely as the only viable way to increase prices. In both scenarios, these businesses would stop serving a large part of the local community they currently cater for.

All said they would find it impossible, or extremely difficult to run their businesses outside of Brixton, as it would take a long time to build a similar trade. They all anticipate losing their current customers:

"We are not IKEA, people won't drive 10 miles to buy with us"
- Ray Murphy, Budget Carpets, trading 25 years.

Some fear this is the end of their working life.

A separate analysis conducted by the traders estimates the total number of people affected if the evictions go ahead at 409, of which is 149 direct impact from people employed in the arches and 260 indirectly covering family members. Suppliers are not included in these numbers although it would be useful to understand the impact on suppliers and wider local value chains and trading relationships.

 

2. What customers said

We interviewed 12 customers from 11 shops, chosen at random. Over 90% were from BME backgrounds, the majority had been shopping there for over ten years, and three or more times a week.

2.1 Customers value quality, variety and price

For most, it is the quality, variety and price of the goods, as well as the personal experience. For instance, Pearl, interviewed at Marsh Fishmongers, said “I'm a very picky person, I chose what I eat. You can't find this quality anywhere else”. The same answer was given by Michelle and David, who live in East Dulwich but do their shopping in the arches because  they find “good meat and fish quality, which you can't find anywhere else”.  Many appreciate the fact that they can find traditional food and goods from their country of origin.

Price was also mentioned by some of the interviewees as a reason to come to the arches (“good price”, “convenient”, “reasonable price”) . Many pointed out that they have built a relationship with the owners of the shops or the employees (“I like the people who run the business”).

Among those who were interviewed at coffee shops, the opportunity to socialise was a main reason. Amare, an Eritrean male interviewed at one of the cafes said (and this is a prevailing topic among the African community).

 

“I come here because I meet my friends...a lot of my friends come here too. It's a meeting place”. Tekeste, said the same about the Joyful Cafe: “You find your people here, we all know each other”.

 

2.2 Community members would lose a valuable resource

Nearly all of the interviewees who were asked about the consequences for them of a potential eviction expressed their distress. Many of them said they wouldn't know where to find the same goods if the eviction goes ahead, at least not in Brixton. If the prices of these goods and services doubled interviewees said they would probably have to look elsewhere for alternatives (supermarkets, Amazon...). They were also keen to highlight that this is not something they wanted to do.

Critically, there seems to be something rather unique about the arches themselves that makes shopping there a special and enjoyable experience. This could be the location, the atmosphere, the personal and familiar, almost village like feel. “If they moved it wouldn't be the same” was a regular statement answer. This was best expressed by Carlo, an italian male interviewed at Cafe @ Brixton: “I could follow them (if they moved somewhere else in Brixton) but the atmosphere of the Arches is very particular. Even if they moved to Coldharbour Lane it wouldn't be the same”.

 

2.3 People are distressed and feel the plans are unfair

Everyone expressed deep discomfort about potential changes to the arches and the way this was being done. The majority felt that changes will not be for the better, and that they will especially hit the poor. As 66 year old Doty, a customer of Baron’s Menswear who’s lived in Brixton since the 1960s, put it:

“I know people have to move on and things have to change. But sadly things are not changing for the better for ordinary people, the laymen people with basic wages. I don't think this change would be beneficial. The rich people would move and the poor people would be stuffed.”

Some customers struggled to understand the rationale for the evictions. While they believe it is reasonable to improve the structure and outside look of the buildings, this should not lead to current tenants being evicted purely as a result of disproportionate increases in their lease. 

There is also an overwhelming sense of unfairness about the whole process, which appears to be driven solely by the objective of achieving higher profits.  Jacobo, a Latin American male, said “It's just wrong to increase rents so drastically”. Many felt that this was not a fair way to reward risks that the businesses took when Brixton was less fashionable. As Mehrii, an Eritrean male interviewed at the Moroccan Cafe, put it:

“These people took the risk. They started a new business here when nobody wanted to be here”.

 

3. How is the process going?

From the traders’ perspective, they believe that the process so far has lacked transparency and fairness. Their interaction with Network Rail to date was described as minimal and highly unsatisfactory. Traders were initially told their leases would be terminated unilaterally, and that they had six months to move – this was done verbally through a Network Rail employee who visited each trader, leaving behind a leaflet with limited information on it. Understandably this created a high degree of uncertainty, fear and anxiety in all of the traders and their families, and a sense of mistrust which exists to this day.

While supportive of work to smarten the area, traders remained unclear about the needs for refurbishment for their individual units, and in many cases they were unconvinced of such needs. Some pointed to the lack of responsiveness by Network Rail to date in relation to basic maintenance work. If the refurbishment is to go ahead, there was overall agreement that this should be carried out in stages, as quickly as possible, and subject to compensation, thereby minimising disruption to the business.

Following a large public response, Network Rail adapted their plans and produced first a Q&A that was distributed to the traders, with a view to provide more information about the plans, including Network Rail intention to delay the beginning of the works until after Christmas (some traders asked to have had a 3 year notice – which would give them enough time to adapt their business plans).

An elaborate version of this Q&A was then put up on Network Rail website. However well intentioned, this remains a unilateral approach, and we have yet to see a genuinely constructive dialogue that takes into account the actual needs of the traders.

“We feel they haven't looked at individual circumstances and they haven’t dealt with us as individuals”
- Riccardo Festa, The Baron Menswear said:, trading 35 years.

Many traders accused Network Rail of putting an enormous degree of pressure on them (“it has become all consuming”, Jose Cardoso, A&C Continental Delicatessen).

There was unanimous disappointment with how little the Council has engaged with them throughout the process and a widespread feel of betrayal. Some described the Council’s engagement with them as “non-existent”. The traders feel they took risks at a time when Brixton was a less attractive location to set up a business; they have worked hard to develop relationships between them and with the diverse communities that they serve, and many have embraced British values. And yet, they are now being asked to leave:

 “When Brixton was bad we were good. Now that Brixton is good we are bad”
- Riccardo Festa, The Baron

There was a general sense of impotence vis-à-vis a system that is driven solely by profit (“It is big fish eating small fish”, Kraiem Znaidi) and without regard for the community (“it seems to be excluded from the plan”, Mohamed Kheddashe).

 

4. Why does all this matter?

In summary, we have found that current traders are facing a very uncertain future, and should the evictions go ahead, a loss of business and their livelihoods. Without proper compensation and/or alternative local shops at comparable rates and compensation to cover move costs, many of the businesses would lose their trade and customer base. We also found that customers would miss these shops and would struggle to find alternatives locally, and may be driven towards supermarkets or face longer trips to other parts of London which stock the goods that they currently find in Brixton.

Based on these findings we suggest that evicting these businesses and replacing them with either large chains, new/emerging chains or those with multi-site operations, or new independents backed with appropriate money to afford high rents, would result in a broader negative effect on Brixton and the wider Lambeth community.

We believe that we would see:

  1. a reduction in the variety of offering aimed at diverse community members, many of whom are already feeling that Brixton is changing in a way that excludes them.
  2. reduced opportunity to socialise in a public space for those with lower incomes, potentially driving people to stay at home and reduce their social links and interactions.
  3. a reduction in money that goes back into the local economy from customer spending (should the businesses be replaced with chains or online shopping).
  4. a hammer blow to the intangible fabric that makes Brixton unique.

There are broader issues at stake too as what is happening with the arches is indicative of trends London-wide and nationally.

 

5. Recommendations

Network Rail should conduct any necessary maintenance work as a dutiful landlord but abandon the plans for refurbishment and associated evictions until a fully fledged impact assessment of the proposals, including the impact on the wider community has been conducted. We recommend that this is done by an independent party, working with both Network Rail, Lambeth Council and the traders.

In addition, we call on Network Rail to:

  1. Reject the need to terminate leases in order for any work to be completed. This is paramount to them demonstrating a commitment to their tenants option to return.
  2. Provide specific details of the refurbishment needs of each of the units.
  3. Set out in writing the details of their proposals, including: detailed timelines of their current plans, work required for each unit and anticipated rent increases.
  4. Any work must be assessed and carried out on an arch by arch basis (rather than all at once), in consultation with that tenant and in as short a timescale as possible to ensure minimum disruption to the business.
  5. Offer all traders compensation for the inevitable disruption to the business that the work will create.
  6. Offer all traders the right of first return and set out what compensation they propose to offer those who wish to forego such right
  7. Provide specific details of alternative locations as close as possible to the current units, including anticipated rents for such locations.
  8. Provide a single point of contact for all traders.

 

Lambeth Council to:

  1. Establish a separate and regular dialogue with the traders
  2. Specify how granting planning permission would help them meet their priorities of serving the diverse community

 

The community of traders (who have got together as Brixton Community United) to:

  1. Appoint an independent third party that will have a right to attend all future meetings (collective and individual between the parties), and whose role would be to look out for the interest of the traders and the wider public interest (e.g., for example in discussions about future allocation of the units). This post could be funded by Lambeth Council, who could then have a say in the appointment.
  2. Join up with other Network Rail tenants associations across the UK to share and learn from each others’ experiences. 

 

6. Get involved!

We also invite the community of Brixton, Lambeth residents and everyone else in London to get involved!

For example, you could:

  1. Contact your local representative or MP - write to them and tell them that you are unhappy about these plans. Feel free to refer to this report. You can easily find out who your representatives are and contact them through this website: https://www.writetothem.com/

 

  1. Contact Lambeth Council and ask them to do more to support the Brixton business community. You can write to Cllr Jack Hopkins, Cabinet Member for Jobs and Growth (jhopkins@lambeth.gov.uk) or Tom Bridgman, Delivery Lead for Regeneration (tbridgman@lambeth.gov.uk).
  1. Contact Mark Carne, CEO of Network Rail, to ask they abandon their current plans until a full impact assessment has been conducted: mark.carne@networkrail.co.uk

 

If you have any ideas about what else could be done or if you can help in practical ways let us know a  info@savebrixtonarches.com

And for more information check: www.savebrixtonarches.com 

Who we are:  This report and interviews were completed by local Brixton residents (Monica Arino, Kristina Glushkova, Ray McFarlane, Bruno Pacchioti, Jenny Paton) on a voluntary basis with support from Tom Shakhli at Brixton Pound. If you have any questions about this paper, please email archesimpactreport@gmail.com.  

 

Annexes

 

Traders interviewed

We interviewed the owners or managers of 14 businesses, of which 13 are facing eviction under the current plans and 1 is unsure.

The businesses currently affected were: Cafe Rio, The Baron Menswear, S&S Textiles, A&C Continental Delicatessen, Moroccan Cafe, Beautiful Books, Beauty Choice Cosmetics, Budget Carpets, Brixton Tools, Harmens estate agents and three other shop owners interviewed anonymously. 

Of the shops surveyed, 62% have been trading for 20 years or more, and 92% for ten years or more. Only one shop was trading for less than ten years.

 

Customers interviewed

We interviewed 12 randomly selected customers at 11 different shops:

  1. Of these 11 (92%) were Black and Minority Ethnic Groups (Black British, African, Caribbean, Latin American) and one was from Italy.
  2. Half were aged between 30 and 50, and half were between 50 and 80
  3. Half had shopped at the arcades or over ten years
  4. 58% (seven people) shopped at the Arches three or more times a week, the others shopped occasionally.

 

Interview questions

Business owners/managers:

  1. How long have you been trading here for?
  2. Why did you start your business in Brixton?
  3. How many jobs does this business sustain?
  4. If the eviction goes ahead, will you still be able to keep trading within the Brixton area (in a similar location, at the same rent level) or you see yourself moving somewhere else?
  5. If you get evicted, do you think your customers will keep doing their shopping with you? Or you think that you would have to build up a new customer base instead?
  6. On a scale of 1-10 (1-not very well, 10-fine), how well will you be able to run your business in a different location (consider finding new customers, using your regular suppliers etc).
  7. Could you run your business in this location if the rent doubled? Would you be able to adjust your prices and increase revenue to manage this higher rent?
  8. Describe the customers that use your business regularly (nationality, ethnicity, local/tourist/one-off etc)
  9. How would you describe Network Rail’s communication with you so far? And Lambeth Council?
  10. What could help you if the evictions do go ahead? What could minimise impact?
  11. Other reflections / general impact / anything else to add?

Customers:

  1. How long have you been shopping here for?
  2. How often do you do your shopping here? Daily, weekly, monthly, once in a while?
  3. What drives you to do your shopping here? (e.g. vicinity, tradition, price..)
  4. If this business was evicted, would you still be able to do your shopping in the area? Would you be able to find the goods you need?
  5. What if their prices increased for example twice, could you shop here?
  6. What if the prices were the same, but  they moved somewhere else within the Brixton area, would you still shop with them? What if they moved away from Brixton?
  7. How do you feel in general about these changes?

 

Save Brixton Arches