Comment Why it pays to help business thrive underneath the arches
The landlord for occupants of viaduct arches is Network Rail. Network Rail is planning to sell its property arm, including around 5,500 railway arches, which is said to be worth about £1.2 billion. In preparation for this sale, it is currently imposing rent rises on tenants of up to 500 per cent. This will inevitably force many small businesses in arches, operating on low overheads, to close.
A national umbrella group of traders, Guardians of the Arches, is campaigning against the rent rises and the projected sale, and is asking Transport Secretary Chris Grayling intervene and stop it.
Jane Jacobs wrote that “What cities manufacture is diversity”, meaning diversity of economic activity. One of her four conditions for creating urban diversity is a plentiful supply of old buildings, where small businesses, whether old or new, can prosper.
This fundamental and vital fact is often not understood by politicians, town planners and large landlords like Network Rail.
A disproportionate amount of attention and importance is instead paid by them to big businesses occupying big units of new accommodation, which incidentally often result in the demolition of usable old buildings.
Look for example at the publicity given to the imminent arrival of HSBC at its large new building in Broad Street. This is good news for the hundreds of people who will have jobs there, but it will do next to nothing to increase the functional and economic diversity of the city, or to improve the daily quality of life of those who live here.
The railway viaduct arch is an illustration of the direct relationship which can exist between architecture and the urban economy.
They, and other amortised old buildings, simply enable small businesses to exist. Some of those small businesses grow big. I am writing this on a Hewlett Packard laptop. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s business started in a car garage, because they could not afford to rent commercial space.
Digbeth, spanned by three separate railway viaducts, is a neighbourhood with a relatively high proportion of businesses in railway arches. They contribute to the small-scale diversity which is the characteristic quality of Digbeth – the often-surprising juxtaposition of uses and activities.
On Shaw’s Passage, underneath Moor Street Station and a stone’s throw from where High Speed Two trains from London will slow to a halt, can be found Motormech Limited, a car repair workshop occupying two arches. In the next arch is Kilder, a cool black bar and café. Next door are the celebrated burgers of the Original Patty Men. They are regulars at Digbeth Dining Club, housed in another arch further down the line. Next is a “global gaming arena”, in an arch which not long ago accommodated a church.
This kind of diversity is what cities are for, and should be cherished and valued. Here it has grown naturally through incremental enterprise. But if Network Rail’s plans to raise rents and sell to a big commercial operator go through, the attractive diversity of Digbeth and similar districts will be under threat.
Of course, Network Rail’s plans are alongside a bigger threat to Digbeth’s diversity, which is the arrival of the HS2 terminal at Curzon Street. Land and building values are going up in anticipation, and the danger is that Digbeth will become part of an increasingly homogeneous city centre, both in its building scale and in its land uses.
It is a conservation area, whose old buildings cannot be demolished without planning approval, and its management plan is currently being rewritten in the city council. There is a difficult but vital job to be done here: to ensure that investment in the neighbourhood is made, but in such a way that its scale and diversity is maintained, and not obliterated. Joe Holyoak is a Birminghambased architect and urban
> Shaw’s Passage, beneath Moor Street Station, in Digbeth > Burger supremos The Original Patty Men