London’s Crossrail: Commuting At The Cost Of Community?

The Crossrail is coming to London but does the increased convenience for commuters justify its disruption of communities and small businesses?

40 years after its conception, London’s Crossrail is finally entering the latter stages of development and is likely to be completed by December 2019Christened the ‘Elizabeth line’ to align with the monarchical trope of the Victoria and Jubilee lines, the new Crossrail ties in East-West connections running through all 9 London Zones and spans across 3 home counties.

Estimates put the cost of the project at around £14.8 billion, a whole £5 billion more than the cost of the 2012 Olympics. It will accommodate 70 new trains, which will all have Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity, air-conditioned walk-through carriages, and an increased capacity of 1,500 passengers per train, making for a highly effective and decidedly modern solution to the congestion of other inner-city lines.

In addition, the trains are designed with an environmental mindfulness, as Crossrail opts for an energy efficient alternative. Although it looks to be a promising upgrade for London commuters, the project has wider implications on the communities its construction has already, and will likely continue to, disrupt.

Boris Johnson unveils new designs for the capital’s Crossrail stations at The Building Centre, London back in 2010. Photo by Lewis Whyld

The introduction of the Crossrail may lead to the renovation of surrounding areas in an effort to draw appeal to homebuyers and businesses, potentially at the cost of small local businesses. Forest Gate, located in east London’s zone 3, is undergoing such a transformation.  

Bereket Food Centre, around a 3-minute walk away from Forest Gate station, has already felt the change. In the last 4 years, the food centre has had their application to include an Oyster top-up facility rejected 15 times by TfL. As a consequence, they’ve been missing out on the custom of morning peak-time commuters.

TfL has offered the top-up service to several other convenience shops nearby, but seemingly at random, arbitrarily penalising businesses like the Bereket Food Centre.

Further down Woodgrange Road, on which Forest Gate Station sits, Dipak, who runs Angie’s Stock Shop selling domestic appliances and a range of conveniences, plans on closing after a recent decline in business. Dipak has been running his shop for around 19 years, but changes in the area over the past few years has made it harder to turn a profit.

Dipak speaks on the row of shops, located right beside his, which have been permanently closed after being bought by a property development group with plans to transform the land into a Lidl supermarket and 63 new flats. According to Dipak, the council initially gave planning permission for the ground floor to occupy 8 independent units, however, the developers have not honoured this and the council, so far, has been unresponsive in regulating the development.

Archaeologists excavate a Crossrail construction site. Photo by Maggie Cox

Councils play a significant part in the future of small retail and act as mediators between business development and social welfare. Dipak says that Newham London Borough Council “stopped offering new licenses to betting and chicken shops in the area” after complaints about littering.

While the regulation of chicken and betting shops, which often dominate London’s suburban high streets, could open the door for more positive developments for the local community, encouraging the construction of big supermarkets instead makes for questionable moderation.

Unfortunately for small retail, it’s easy to bow to the pressure of closing or relocating when incoming businesses offer generous fees to take over the property, as happened in Dipak’s case.

Around 9 years ago he was approached by a popular bookmaking business due to the location of his shop, and while the sum was tempting, since “business was very good” at the time, Dipak turned them down. However, he now laments this missed opportunity as he was unable to predict the gradual decline of business that would eventually take place.

Escalators at Woolwich Station. Photo by © Crossrail Ltd

Nevertheless, not all business is feeling the threat from new developments. Norman, who works in a nearby DIY supply shop, feels Crossrail may “hopefully be a good thing”, helping to “uplift” the community.

For Ray, who independently runs Brompton News near Maryland station, thinks the reinvigoration of community spirit isn’t that simple. For him, the local community “lost” its community feel years ago, largely due to a rise in crime.  

Ray has found challenges in preserving the business he inherited from his father, but retains a stoic mentality, emphasising the importance of “adapting with the times”. He now offers a delivery collection and Western Union money transfer service in an effort to keep up with demand. 

The disruption to local bus services, due to planned TfL roadworks earlier this year, has impaired Ray’s business to the point where he no longer sees many of his regular customers. There seems to be doubt as to whether the introduction of the “Elizabeth Line” will reverse this loss.  

Whitechapel crossrail developments from above. © Crossrail Ltd photo by John Zammit

Although Crossrail may encourage rapid gentrification and speed up the decline of small business, the future is not entirely bleak.

The £14.8bn project has helped increase the UK workforce by contracting Derby-based manufacturer Bombardier to build the new trains. As a result Crossrail has helped support the creation of over 1200 new jobs.  

Developers of the project theorise that the new line could support more than 20,000 additional, well-paid, highly-productive jobs by 2027 by permitting core business districts to expand. Fares are reasonably priced too, as Crossrail pay-as-you-go-fares remains the same as Oyster and contactless fares.

Crossrail line under construction © Crossrail Ltd. Photo by John Zammit

Despite the potential benefits of Crossrail, there are still legitimate concerns that the development will increase property prices and rates of rent in areas around the new line to the point where locals are driven out in favour of more wealthy, inner-city workers, irreversibly disrupting communities. House prices in Whitechapel for example, one of the sites chosen for a Crossrail station, are expected to increase by 15 per cent between this year and 2022.

Although Whitechapel proudly retains its cultural identity through the abundance of shops and its popular market where you may find a colourful salwar kameez or indulge in authentic confectionary, the future of Crossrail might mean an exponential transformation in culture and services.

The Elizabeth line will undoubtedly speed the process of these changes as the inevitable influx of commuters and first-time buyers gravitate towards areas connected by it. Whether this change will honour and benefit the current community depends largely on how councils proceed to delegate.

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