Network Rail's mass sell-off could spell trouble for Manchester traders. Danny Moran reports on what’s been billed as an act of mass gentrification.

They’re the definitive nooks and crannies on the city map. The little hobbit holes with the cavernous interiors not conventionally suited to corporate requirement. Tucked inside the rattling spines of the nation’s railway network - home, traditionally, to low rent start-ups and sun-starved grease monkeys, or those who otherwise can abide a bit of grime, spit and rumble in course of trade - our railway arches are like allotments for fledgling businesses or mavericks carving out a niche in the thick of the urban game.

Now the Department for Transport, via its cash-starved Network Rail franchise, wants to flog them off in a single job lot in what’s been billed as an act of mass gentrification. A small but highly toothsome school of sharks - Blackstone, Terra Firma, Goldman Sachs - circle the scent of a £1.4bn killing. Imagine the mark-up on these five-thousand-or-so hipster-friendly cribs! The rail bosses want to invest in better rolling stock, so they say, and the property market is just waiting to be played. The shriek coming out of London at the potential rent hikes is as loud and as long as the brakes on a knackered old Inter City 125.   

The idea that they’re going to come in and put a Starbucks here next year is ludicrous...

Down at Angel Meadow no-one’s really sure what’s going on, though. The former slumland awaits four new searing tower blocks around its historic, tumbling park followed at some point by the remainder of the Northern Gateway development. A vague circular from the landlord dropped through letterboxes several months ago has left many in the dark, such as Prakash Patel, the owner of the Popup Bikes café and repair shop in Arch no.5 on Corporation Street.

“It’s a live line up there” he says, “So we don’t know if Network Rail will have to hold on to it. I’ve written to ask them but I’ve not heard anything back as yet. That’s actually my biggest frustration with this…not knowing.”   

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Prakash Patel: "I'd like to see what they intend to do to justify these rent increases."

Above us, trackbed for rail and Metrolink stretches out towards hollowing satellite towns. The low din descends every few moments: a bass rumble of juddering masonry, the mechanical scutter of shuttling tram. After the slow start to the Green Quarter project there’s the beginnings of a community here, now. Punters call in to get their bikes set up or grab a coffee on the way in to work.

The café comprises a homely, mix-and-match ensemble...some old armchairs, a creaking Chesterfield, a shelf of paperbacks to browse, chandeliers to read by in the gloom. Further in, the floor swoops down to a lower level where the bikes are fixed.

“We use the slope to test the brakes,” explains Prakash. “If you can’t stop before you hit the tool stand then you’re in trouble.”

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Dave Rigby: "The best in the world"

Down the row at Arch no.21, Dave Rigby brims with pride at a business he sees as testament to Mancunian inspiration. His Three Rivers gin distillery has been trading for three years now, while welcoming tourists to its boozy on-site tasting sessions. He shows off the copper Arnold Holstein still in the ground floor factory space (“they’re the best in the world”) and the mezzanine tasting area which he and his dad fitted out with scaffold boards for wood-panelling.

Dave’s pretty sure that theirs is the first such distillery in the city’s history…not counting your odd Mrs Miggins’ Front Room Gin Brothel type affair from back in the day, of course.  “This place has that Wonka Factory thing about it,” he beams. “Looks shit from the outside but then you walk in and this is what you get…”  

“Modern metropolitan life in Manchester is all about going to places like the ones we have here,” he says. “That’s what it’s about. You hear what a fantastic city Manchester is, but it’s people like us who make it what it is. Not your Nandos and your Starbucks, with the greatest of respect. So of course, we’ve signed the petition and we’ll see what happens.”

'For the tenants that run these it will be business as usual once the estate is sold' - David Biggs, Network Rail MD

In the shadow of Piccadilly Station Sam Dyson is more sanguine about the ‘Guardians of the Arches’ campaign coming out of London. His Track brewery is one of hundreds across the country who ply their trade from Network Rail premises: the whole industry is on high alert over the impending takeover. For all the cranes he sees on the horizon, though, Sam knows that in economic terms the north is still a backwater while London remains one of the richest nations on Earth.

“It’s not the same, there and here,” he says. “Commercial space in London is maxed out.” He looks up and down the jagged apron of Sheffield Street, past the packing plant, the martial arts studio, into the nexus of a red light zone and a twilight shooting gallery.

“The idea that they’re going to come in and put a Starbucks here next year is ludicrous,” he grimaces. “To be honest, right now I’m more bothered by HS2. When that comes along we’ll all be out of here anyway.”

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Ian Clayton: "Since the mills got converted a lot of these places are used for storage. There aren't as many grease monkeys as you think."

For chapter and verse on the derelictions of the present landlord (or to get your Ducati fettled by a man who’s forgotten more than you know) you want to speak to Ian Clayton at Mr Pig’s motorcycle repair, out in cannabis farm country by Ardwick station. For a quick taxi, out-of-hours, you want Club Radio Cars on Whitworth Street West – that’s ‘Kicker Cabs’ to those in the know, because you have to kick the shutter in order to rouse them up in the office.

“I can’t understand why they would want to sell these arches” says Manny, who’s been the supervisor there for sixteen years. “They’re an asset. You can only sell them once.”

That bridge traversing the city from Piccadilly to Castlefield is the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway Viaduct. When it was built in 1849 it was considered the southern boundary of the city centre, a haven for thieves, prostitutes and low rent hovels, which the folks who built the warehouses were keen to conceal.

Now, a hint of demi-monde is the grit in the property oyster. It’s the way the world turns. Prakash, Dave, Manny, Ian, Sam…who knows where they all will be in five years’ time?

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Railway arches on Corporation Street
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Manny: “They’re an asset. You can only sell them once.”

What do Network Rail have to say?

David Biggs, managing director of Network Rail Property, said:

‘We are selling a thriving estate of small and independent businesses and we believe the portfolio is a highly attractive business with growth potential.

‘We are proud that we have so many independent and diverse businesses thriving on our commercial estate, and for the tenants that run these it will be business as usual once the estate is sold. All lease arrangements will transfer to the new owner and all arrangements and protections will stay in place.

‘We believe a new owner will bring more investment to the commercial estate, benefiting tenants and local communities, and creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.

‘The sale is completely unconnected with periodic rent reviews which are part of our normal business activity. Our rents are based on local property market values with the vast majority of reviews, around 85%, agreed at an increase of 10% or less.’

Follow Danny Moran on Twitter @dannyxmoran

Thanks to Brian Rosa of City University, New York.