UK railway arches, the last bastion of publicly owned commercial space, engines of small business, about to be killed by privatization

A quirk of British rail history left 4,555 railway arches in public ownership through National Rail, and these commercial spaces are that most rare of British commodities: publicly owned, reasonably priced commercial spaces that welcome quirky industries and small businesses that are the nation's only respite from endlessly homogenised high-streets sporting the same fast food chains, betting shops and chain grocers.

But after a decade of austerity and privatisation, National Rail is planning to raise at least £1 billion by selling off its archways, with top bidders including facehugging vampire squids Goldman Sachs and slumlord hedge-fund Blackstone.

The plight of the railway arches highlights a broader lack of affordable commercial space for manufacturers and repairers in British cities. An ongoing research project called Cities of Making – involving universities from London, Brussels and Rotterdam – found that manufacturing firms are having to leave inner city London, due to a lack of affordable space and rising business rates.

Even maker spaces – the small studios or workshops heralded for offering exciting new opportunities for people to start up small-scale production lines through sharing new technologies – are being priced out or forced to contract in East London.

Britain's railway arches are being sold off – and small businesses could be forced out
[Francesca Froy/The Conversation]

(Image: Stephen Richards, CC-BY-SA)