Last night I got the Network Rail bosses down to meet face to face with most of the businesses. Despite rumours of a boycott as reported in the Brixton Buzz we had a good turnout, with the majority of tenants attending. The businesses I spoke to afterwards felt that they had the opportunity to challenge senior bosses which had not happened before.
But I think it’s fair to say there remains a lot of distrust and anger and that’s got to be the first thing that Network Rail resolves.
The main focus of the discussion was around two key issues. Firstly, how are Network Rail deciding what they mean by affordable rents so businesses wanting to return know what the situation is. I simply don’t think it’s acceptable for Network Rail to charge market level rents immediately and they must acknowledge their role as a public sector body, no longer simply beholden to shareholders.
The second main point was about the compensation package Network Rail will offer and the logistics of relocation.
I was really disappointed to learn that Network Rail aim to come back with this detail in May. The council and businesses don’t think this is acceptable and to have this hanging over their heads for another two months is unfair. Tenants not only need to plan for their business and staffing but need to know if they’ll be able to pay their mortgage and support their families. Business owners made that point loud and clear last night and I hope Network Rail will provide this information to the affected businesses far earlier than May.
It’s also clear that Network Rail also need to be transparent about how they are coming to these figures and deals. If future rent levels depend on the costs of refurbishment, then a clear case and costings for those works need to be presented as soon as possible. Some businesses raised the fact that they had already refurbished their arches, so why did this need to be costed at all?
There also needs to be a clear response to questions about why the businesses would be bearing the full cost of the work through rent increases – the neglect over years will have surely increased costs and for the businesses to bear the brunt of that neglect is unfair.
Furthermore if the rent levels will depend on the cost of works, the tenants need to be confident that Network Rail are getting best value from their contractors, not passing overspends on to the businesses.
There were questions about why the tenancies needed to be changed – a question also raised on my last walkabout with businesses and is yet to be clarified by Network Rail. Businesses are concerned that their rights will be diluted in any new tenancy agreement over and above the challenge of higher rents.
Underpinning these questions is a fundamental challenge to Network Rail: As a public body you are subject to the Social Value Act. How are you demonstrating this with respect to your tenants and the Brixton community. As a Council, Lambeth ensure’s through procurement that social value – like apprentices, use of small businesses and local jobs – are part of any deal. Network Rail must outline their commitment to this in practical terms in an affordable rent offer and fair deal.
Many people ask what the council is doing about it. Last night’s meeting was one example. We will use whatever leverage we can to ensure Network Rail listen to local businesses and residents. Network Rail have already offered the right to return and the phasing of works are being genuinely considered. This was not the case at the start of the process and is something which businesses, the council and the community have brought to the table. My role is to get a fair deal for the businesses and a fair deal for Brixton.
Furthermore we are intending to help businesses in their pocket by encouraging people to actually use them to shop, and I would ask the 19,000 people who have signed the recent petition to come and show their support in the best way they can; with a visit and to spend some money. The council is creating new employment space on Pope’s Road and has a discounted contract with the Brixton Market Traders Federation to run the market on Brixton Station Road, both of which increase footfall for those businesses.
I was also asked when I first knew that Network Rail wanted to refurbish the arches. I was first told that Network Rail were actually going to do something in November last year, we encouraged them to delay until after Christmas, and to put together a clear and fair deal for the businesses. However as the landlord the first approach was legally theirs to make. I had assumed that they would have proceeded in a better way and I think they now realise the passion people have for Brixton.