Community group launches challenge against Network Rail to preserve unique local resource

Save Brixton Arches, a community group of local traders, residents, and other supporters, has today launched a legal challenge against Network Rails’ decision to refurbish the retail units in Brixton arches.

Network Rail informed traders that the planned refurbishment work was likely to take a year, traders’ leases would come to an end, traders would need to find new premises for the period and a return could be discussed, however the rents would increase. The group is concerned that the diverse and vibrant trading community that currently exists in Brixton will be destroyed by Network Rail’s plans, and argues that the company failed to consult properly with traders  and failed to consider how to retain the current diversity of the traders, or its particularly ethnically diverse customer base.

On 3 February 2015 traders who operate between Brixton Road and Pope’s Road received a hand-delivered letter from Network Rail about its planned refurbishment of the area and stating that preserving Brixton’s unique character was central to its proposals.

The leaflet set out a timetable of redevelopment, but following pressure from the group and a petition against the eviction of the traders which collected 10,000 signatures in the space of a week, Network Rail said that they were willing to amend the timetable and give existing traders a right of refusal to return to their unit.

A meeting between traders and Network Rail took place on 24 February was followed by two letters to traders from the government body which gave details of a phased programme of works and a review which would be ready by mid-May which would include information about phasing and the increase in rent levels.

A letter from Network Rail on 11 March outlined the body’s obligations to achieve a financial return on any redevelopment it carried out, together with an amended timetable stating that a planning application would be submitted in July, and formal notices issued, ending the traders present leases, in September.

On 30 April traders sent Network Rail a copy of an impact assessment that its volunteers had carried out. The impact assessment included interviews with 12 customers chosen at random. Over 90% were from BME backgrounds.

The impact assessment argued that the planned closures by Network Rail would have a very negative effect on the diverse range of businesses run from the arches, and that the majority of businesses would be unable to survive a year’s hiatus while the development took place.

It concluded that Network Rail’s plans would result in “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”.

It recommended that Network Rail should “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”.

On 15 May 2015, Network Rail wrote to the traders saying that, “having carefully reviewed the options available to us, we do not believe that phasing the work is a safe, practical, or financially viable option… I would therefore like to invite you to meet with me or one of my colleagues to discuss a compensation offer based around the termination of your tenancy agreement”.

Acting on behalf of the traders, human rights solicitor Ugo Hayter is arguing that because Network Rail is part of a Government department it is obliged to discharge the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) and so has to consider a range of duties to do with discrimination on the grounds of, amongst others, race.

Ms Hayter argues that Network Rail should have given due regard when taking its decision to refurbish the arches (and not to phase that refurbishment) to the effect of that decision on persons with protected characteristics.

The traders’ case is that Network Rail has failed to discharge the PSED and its decision to refurbish the arches is unlawful as a result.

They are calling on Network Rail not to act on the decision to conduct a year-long, unphased refurbishment of the arches and it will then take a fresh decision but only following it having discharged its PSED.

If this does not happen, the traders will begin a claim for judicial review asking the court to quash the decision. Network Rail has 14 days to respond.

Ugo Hayter, from the human rights team at Leigh Day, who is representing the traders said:

“Many of the businesses which will be affected have been trading from the same shop for generations and have been handed down within families. The area’s business community is made up of over 30 different cultural heritages and they serve an even wider and more diverse customer base, the majority of who are of low to middle income.

“Network Rail’s present plans to evict traders, raise rents and invite businesses with a view to making the area ‘commercially attractive’, will potentially both end the traders’ livelihoods and be a further step towards destroying Brixton’s unique character.

“My clients are asking that Network Rail withdraw their decision, fully consult with traders, undertake an impact assessment which considers the impacts of their plans and then make a fresh lawful decision which establishes a positive plan for how to retain the current diversity of the traders and their customer base.

Jose Cardoso said:

"We're still looking for the answers to the questions and concerns that were put to Network Rail by traders at the beginning of February 2015. We are now four and a half months on from the day that Network Rail informed us we were to be evicted in 6 months; however we are still being kept in the dark about their plans. It's unacceptable for Network Rail to repeatedly ignore their tenants concerns and maintain such an uncollaborative, unaccountable attitude.

“We cannot allow Network Rail to ignore the wishes of the local communities that use these shops day to day. Their support was earned not for the practical, convenient or utilitarian nature of the businesses. It is virtuous acknowledgement of the service given and received over decades. A mutual enhancement that has helped to create diversity and character that we are proud to call Brixton.”