Brixton may not recover …

One of the highlights of last night’s Lambeth council planning committee meeting that backed redevelopment of Brixton Arches by owner Network Rail, was the impassioned plea of local shopkeeper James Castle, speaking as a formal objector to the plans. This is an edited version:


Brixton may not recover …
Arches traders at last night’s meeting

This planning application holds, in writing:

Objections – 947; nine, four, seven.

Comments of support for this planning application – one five. 15.

One of these observes: “But I would like the existing tenants to be looked after properly”.

The announcement of evictions of these longstanding shops at the railway arches, galvanised many of us Brixton people into action.

Already seriously alarmed at some of the council’s property plans for raising revenue made necessary by government cuts, there had only been talk and much shaking of heads. What exactly, and how? Something must be done.

Network Rail came to the rescue, such was the seismic impact of their plans. Normally easygoing and apolitical locals of all types and all backgrounds rose up and said: “No!  Not the shops – step away from the Brixton Arches shops.”

Reclaim Brixton was born and, within two weeks of our first meeting, around 5,000 people filled Windrush Square.

Some marched to form a large hand-holding ring around the threatened arches. I saw big grown men weep – family fishmongers who had been there 80 years – their gigantic Italian marble slab and Welsh slate fish bath a testament to the years of Brixton commitment.

They did not know they were quite so loved.

James Castle talks to reporters at last night's meeting
James Castle talks to reporters at last night’s meeting

Part of the neighbourhood and community built up and survived through many years of neglect, controversy, trouble and change. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

My formal objection, entirely relevant to this planning application, is the detrimental effect it will have on the character of the neighbourhood. From which it may not recover. Both in terms of the community and of the businesses elsewhere throughout the town.

The arch shops beneath this spine of railway amongst the markets of Brixton are at the centre of our vibrant community.

They are part of the attraction for us and for visitors from the four corners of the Earth – one of prized and quirky assets; independent shops and services grown organically over decades. Not High Street chains.

There is no good reason why Network Rail could not refurbish each arch, where it needs it, on a piecemeal basis. This would prevent shutting down the entire area as a construction site for the years it will take.

It is not the job of the planning committee to have anxiety about the economics.

In their application, Network Rail are critical of the piecemeal development and the addition of various “features” added by local tenants over decades.

It is true that these features are, to some people, ugly and dirty and they do not conform to each other. This is partly the nature of British shops historically speaking.

Mate. Didn’t you know. We don’t all want to live near Guildford High Street.

Repairs and replacements are needed. Revealing the original shape of the arches and other features is desirable to me personally and I like that idea. But I would not impose this on the community if it destroys that community in its re-makery.

If Network Rail want to bring back the grand and glorious original shape of these Victorian arches and other charming original architectural features, then this is thoroughly desirable – and can be done on an arch-by-arch process of strictly necessary renovation.

It might cost more as there are fewer economies of scale in construction and it might be more inconvenient. But it will preserve this organic and very valuable asset of loved shop people in our Town Centre.

I urge you to turn down this application as it is on the grounds I have outlined and also on the grounds that the application is not in accordance with sections of Lambeth’s Local Plan.

And just because the overwhelming majority of Brixton people don’t want it.

Talking to the Blog after the meeting, James Castle said that one of his concerns is the non-preservation and throwing away of important historic or heritage artefacts, which keeps getting forgotten in writing and reporting.

“In particular, I’m talking about the Mash fishmongers arch which is living history – the gigantic marble slab  from Carrera, Tuscany, Italy, and the heavy, shapely slate fish washing bath are great examples of life before refrigeration. And the Edwardian tiles which I’m not convinced Network Rail will remove properly, as it is expensive to do so. We need this in writing properly contracted.

“Mashes are closing early forever on 13 August, even though it is my guess that this will rumble on for another year given the conditions brought up last night and Network Rail’s appalling record on work schedules.”

Castle said he could not find one trader “who has not been exasperated by the men from Network Rail. They are perfectly nice people, of course, but just don’t get it. Not from round here geographically, politically, culturally, humanly.”

He imagined the conversations around how their nice, shiny, new, clean, sleek arch designs are rejected in favour of the filthy, battered, urban-art Mad Max look currently in Atlantic Road.

“I felt like shouting last night: ‘They like it looking dangerous’.”

James Castle is the owner of The Society For The Protection of Unwanted Objects at 125 Dulwich Road, Herne Hill.


  1. I don’t think the current traders are saying that safer and cleaner streets are bad. I don’t even think that they wouldn’t be happy to get their shops refurbished – since apparently Network rail hasn’t done any works in them for decades, when Brixton wasn’t such a desirable place. I think they are afraid of losing their livelihoods – these are family businesses that have been running for years and years. These tenants are not to blame for the drugs, aggression and shoddiness that some commenters mention. They have contributed to cleaning up brixton – and now they are getting kicked out because their landlord (Network rail) would rather cash in on this now desirable area with new rents and tenants who are able to afford them. That’s the truth. All the talk about a core group of people being against change is just collateral to the main issue.

    • I understand that these are local businesses. But I disagree. Why if I have a local business do I have no obligation to paint, modernise, refit? The owner of the Bombay Inn on Brixton hill has just spent thousands moving a few doors up creating a really brand spanking new place (after many years in his old place) as he recognises that businesses (like homes) need doing up. Some of those businesses under the arches look awful. We have an ideal opportunity to create a really lovely shopping parade there where families will feel safe. There is a lot of research that shows that a nicely decorated area reduces crime. To be honest, an area full of subletted mobile phone unlocking kiosks is not my ideal future shopping parade – some of us are not 20 and looking for edgy.

      • Peter – I am definitely not 20 and/or looking edgy (I am past 35!) and that’s exactly why I appreciate long-standing businesses owned by lovely people (have you ever had a chat with any of these traders?) who know their community and actually feel attachment to it. I agree that some of the shops could look better – but mind you most of these shops have been refurbished by their tenants through the years at their expense – no help at all from their landlord. So clearly they understand that a tidy shop increases business. Do not trust the spin (I don’t, and I really hope I am wrong): this is not a nice opportunity to create a shopping parade (which BTW is not something I am personally into, as only the description makes me think of something with no character at all!) but it’s just a way for Network Rail to get their leases back and then offer the units to bigger shops (probably chains, as they will be the only ones able to afford the rents…). Shopping mall, more than shopping parade, really. Oh and BTW have you had a look at what Network Rail have done in Herne Hill?? They have evicted the tenants and they have left the units empty. So maybe that’s what they will end up doing here too. What do you prefer: a sanitised strip of Pret a Manger/ more trendy cafes for the edgy looking 20 somethings/ Waitrose or an empty strip of boarded up units? That’s the future – and I don’t really like the idea….

          • Hehe there’s one in clapham not sure you’re aware? Might save you th trip to tooting while you wait for our beloved council to install the Brixton branch on the site of One of the shops that’s been there since The 30s. You’re one of the lucky people: this council is working for people like you. Problem is: they want no diversity and only shopping parades for people who can afford overpriced, low quality, sanitized and neatly packaged goods. For the rest of us nothing will be left….

          • Oh and by he way, “positivism” – or maybe positivity- can take many shapes and forms. In my case it is helping the traders in the fight for their livelihoods against a greedy company and an even greedier council. Everyone puts their efforts into different causes. Good luck to yours.

  2. Well said Peter. I’ve experienced exactly the same issues. Ignore the haters. I’ve worked hard all my life with no one to help me and made a life in Brixton. I’m also very involved in the community and work to try to make the neighbourhood safer and cleaner. I take real pride in that too. But there is a group of people that resist any change yet do nothing themselves to try to solve the issues on their doorstep or help to improve the community. All they do is moan about change. Let’s work together to make Brixton an even better place to live – let’s stamp out the homophobia and ‘bumbaclot batty boy’ comments; let’s make the streets cleaner; let’s take pride in how Brixton looks and let’s stop the violence on the streets.

  3. Well said, Peter.
    Adam – Just because you don’t agree with an opinion doesn’t make you a troll… it undermines your point of view if you respond by swearing at people.

    • You are an idiot. A troll is someone who blithely puts antagonistic comments up on the web to wind people up (even if they don’t believe what they are writing). Mine is a valid viewpoint that is shared by many people in Brixton – this does not, therefore, make this opinion worthy of being labelled a troll. Just because it is the antithetic opinion to yours does not mean it is not said with belief and truth. We live in a democracy and just pulling out the troll card to anyone that does not appeal to your bleeding heart liberal sensibilities will score you no points.

      • Seriously what a jumped up ignorant wanker. Brixton is already over turned into Clapham mark 2 for the benefit of unwelcome uncultured shitbags like you.

          • Ha ha. A card-carrying member of Momentum, I should think. He almost certainly went to a very expensive local private school and doesn’t like Brixton any more since it became harder to buy drugs outside the KFC. I bet he tells girls he’s an “anarchist” with a really serious look on his face. Because he’s deep.

  4. Lambeth Council is willing to take away from individual shop-keepers their livelihood in order for Network Rail to maximise the value of its property holding? That is wealth redistribution in a regressive direction. Network Rail is a public service company, it has no other reason for being. Where is the public service in taking away from shop-keeper Peter to give to shareholder Paul? Beyond wealth redistribution it is wealth destruction if you take into account the history, the tradition, the unique character, the community landmarks that makes Brixton what it is. We all want to see development and growth, but you can’t go about this by a process of deletion and expulsion. That is simply perverse.

  5. When I arrived in Brixton 25 years ago it was awful. No-one wanted to live here, muggings and burglaries were commonplace. Shops were shoddy and cab drivers wouldn’t even go to Brixton. As a gay man I was routinely homophobically abused (batty this, batty that) – but I am made of sterner stuff and stuck it out. Now (through hard work and getting my head down) I have paid off my mortgage on my flat (100% mortgage, no-one gave me a lift up) and have watched Brixton get cleaner, friendlier, safer, more modern, with every year. That has all been due to people like me moving into the borough, doing up their houses and making streets look attractive – yes, caring for the community you live in. So this is what everyone is moaning about: Gentrification – yes that bad thing that makes streets look like people actually care, new shops, restaurants and chains that attract people and tourists into the area to bring money in (and also hard working upwardly mobile young people with young families who also regenerate houses and make the place look even better) – oh how bad all that is… And then on the other side of the fence we have the Brixton radical moaning massive. Yes a band of people who think that working to own your own house is somehow selling your soul to the devil. A people who think that Brixton Police Station is some type of Stasi HQ full of very bad racist white men who can’t wait to suffocate the next black man on the pavement. A people who think that a hotel chain opening in the centre of Brixton is all corporate greed (rather than thinking that said hotel will invariably have guests every weekend who will go out in Brixton and put cash in a Brixton pub’s till). A people that think they would rather Brixton market looked like some Nairobi slum market rather than a vibrant modern clean place comparable to Hoxton. Yes, light up another big joint and moan moan moan about how you have been hard done by and victimised (yet have done nothing to better your own life), carry on passing on the acidic myth to your children that all Police hate you and that everyone from Eton are the only people that get good jobs. Nothing will stop Brixton improving, because positivism will always win. When I get up in the morning now and look down my street and see all the fantastic planters full of blooming flowers (that we as a street have planted to improve our environment) and I think back to 20 years ago when all I would do is pick up Malt bottles and Guinness cans and put them in the bins, I am GLAD, glad it’s changing, and we will win so get used to it.

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