Artists unable to grow amid Network Rail’s arches sell-off stalemate

Artists at Brixton’s Valentia Place arches are struggling to grow as they await the outcome of Network Rail’s countrywide railway arches sell-off. Tevye Markson reports

BoSI van

The difficulties faced by Network Rail arches tenants around the country has led to the launch of Guardians of the Arches, an organisation to stand up for the small businesses that occupy arches all over Britain.

The Bureau of Silly Ideas (BoSI) is based in Brixton’s Valentia Place and producer Caggy Kerlogue says there are seven empty arches there.

BoSI has demands from artists for more space to work in and has asked Network Rail for years to give them an extra arch.

She said: “It’s really challenging because they’re not in a position to offer that at the moment because they’re selling all the stock.”

A Network Rail spokesman said: “We are currently negotiating with the Bureau of Silly Ideas and believe that we will be able to reach a mutually acceptable agreement soon.

“There are a number of vacant properties on Valentia Place, as BoSI state, but they cannot be let if they are not at our minimum lettable standard.”

BoSI is a not-for-profit arts organisation set up in 2002 that aims to create inspired madness and controlled chaos in the public realm.

Giant spinner in a Valentia Place arch for last year's Brixton Design Trail
Giant spinner in a Valentia Place arch for last year’s Brixton Design Trail

It takes part in Brixton Design Trail and trains people to perform with remote controlled wheelie bins and street furniture.

Its members also spend much of their time going back and forth with Network Rail.

“We’re constantly in battles about the rent increases. It’s quite scary and difficult. It takes time and the exchanges with Network Rail cost us days.

“You don’t hear from them for months and you’ll suddenly be back in an aggressive exchange, back and forth constantly.

“It feels like we’re stopped till August when who knows if we’ll know more.

“Financially it really affects us. We receive one of the lowest amounts of money from the Arts Council.

“It has an enormous impact on the work we’re able to do, our connection with the local community and the support we can offer to other local artists and makers”

Valentia Place arches
Valentia Place arches

Caggy says BoSI is constantly exploring alternative options while they await the outcome of their stalemate with Network Rail

They want to stay in Lambeth. but are struggling to grow as a company.

“We can’t do any future planning or future growth. In terms of securing additional funding for programmes of work here, it is really difficult. We can’t put in for a grant that is going to come in around nine months, because we might not be here.

“All we really know is that we’re going to be here until August when the arches get bought out and taken over. It’s really difficult when you’ve been here for so long.

“We could get more money from people elsewhere who want us but we’d much rather stay here because this is our home and community.”

Caggy is also concerned about the lack of opportunities for new businesses and organisations.

Artist Hew Locke, who has exhibited at the Venice Bienniale, used to have a studio in the arches and Caggy says many successful artists had studios here and have gone on to bigger and better things.

“We wouldn’t have grown if we weren’t able to be in these arch spaces,” she says.

“In the nighties and early to mid-noughties, when these places were still quite affordable to rent, you could be a really small business, an arts organisation, something grassroots and community focused.

“If we were a new company now, there’s no way we’d be able to be in an arch or build a company in this location in London.

“We’re one of the most central London-based outdoors arts companies, but we’re one of the smallest in the country.

Caggy grew up in Lewisham but spent much of her youth in Brixton at the skate park and the Academy.

She has lived in Brixton for the last 15 years, while BoSI creative director Roger Hartley has been in Brixton since the 90s and now lives in Stockwell.

Art in a Valentia Place arch during last year's Brixton Design Trail
Art in a Valentia Place arch during last year’s Brixton Design Trail

Caggy says: “There’s been a mass exodus from Central London. It’s created a slight cultural dead hole where all these people moved in for the culture but now it is being pushed away to an extent.

“New cultures are arising but what about all the people who did the groundwork?”                                                                                                     

Henry Gundry-White, who has been at Valentia Place since the early 1990s and rents two arches of his own, said four arches have been empty for more than ten years.

He said fruit and vegetable market seller Dave Kelly was pressured into relinquishing his lease before local consultant Binki Taylor, a driving force behind the Brixton Design Trail, intervened. However, when he got his lease back it was on lesser terms.

“I don’t know whether you can stop Network Rail,” says Henry.

“They’ve got so many arches but they won’t let us rent them. They won’t rent them out at all.

 “Because I have two arches and the status, they’re not doing anything and won’t do anything, I’m living a worried life.”

Henry said Network Rail brought a court action against him saying he was breaking his lease. His Network Rail agent said he would stop the court action but could not.

Henry had to get help from Binki Taylor to stop being taken to court.

Network Rail said they would drop the action, but still wanted costs. Henry’s solicitors argued Network Rail should pay his costs for making a false allegation.

Says Henry: “They didn’t reply.”

“My contract says I’m not allowed to do anything that would bring the arches into disrepute.

“They’re doing as much as they can to bring the arches into disrepute.”