Earlier this week I made my way down to the shops on Freemasons Road adjacent to Custom House DLR station, to check on the progress of works to install new bridges and walkways in preparation for the Elizabeth line due to debut in December of next year.
The line is set to stretch over 100km linking up Reading with Shenfield and revolutionising London’s rail network. In the meantime, the ‘temporary’ closure of Custom House DLR station has revolutionised retail businesses in the area.
Local shopkeepers remember being told that the construction work would take three to six months to complete – something that they felt was just about manageable. However, we are now 15 months from the initial notice of closure and the work is far from finished.
Transport For London (TFL) has already said that there will be no compensation whatsoever for the lack of custom and drop in revenue caused by the station closure, stating that “with all due respect TFL does not have any obligations to keep any particular station open in order to benefit surrounding or local business”, adding that “the area around Custom House station is being developed in anticipation of an additional 5,500 customers who are expected to interchange in the morning peak when Elizabeth line services operate from the new station in December 2018.”
Instead TFL insists that local businesses will be readily compensated by the new footfall through Custom House from December 2018 onwards. But what happens to the livelihood of people working and trading in the area right now?
I spoke to Ujar Kilic of Memalan Ltd. Discount Store at 33 Freemasons Road. Here’s how our conversation went:
Hello, how are you sir?
I’m fine brother, thank you.
What is your name and how long have you been in Custom House?
My name is Ujar Kilic, I’m Turkish and I’ve actually always lived in North London (Enfield, Edmonton area) but have had this store for over 10 years now.
How long did TFL tell you these works would take?
Three to six months. They came and gave us notice to say they would be making improvements for the next three months and that they could expect a temporary drop in business.
Were you giving any choice in whether or not these works should go ahead?
Of course not.
Do you think Custom House needs this new line running through it?
No, not at all. What is there to do here?! Hackney, Peckham, Leyton, Whitechapel but no, not here.
How long have the works actually gone on for?
18 months.. and counting.
Wow, and how has this affected your business?
Basically, we have had 12 consistent months of poor profit as well as losing around 70% of our local clientele due to the closure of neighbouring businesses – people walk past, there’s no more traffic.
How many shops are currently operating now?
Out of 10 stores, seven have had to go out of business in the last year. One of the only other surviving businesses on this street is another family run business, managed by my brother.
How have you survived the lack of business thus far?
Luckily, this is a family business, we have other stores around London where business is good so we are able to move money around you know.
What impact if anything has this had on your everyday life?
A very big impact. The businesses in this area feed their own families as well as the local community. People are having to close down because their businesses can no longer support their families in the same way.
The lack of life in the area is truly worrying. The few people I saw out on the streets moved with a saddening lethargy, their faces grey and glum, their backs arched.
Also located on Freemasons Road, Newham Citizen’s Advice Bureau is the only ‘shop’ doing a roaring trade. Even the bus stop is ‘not in use’.
Mr. Kilic explained that he feared for the life of his business and the businesses around him. He also told me that recently Custom House shopkeepers were stripped of their leases meaning at any stage now they can be told to vacate their buildings. Ujar believes that the new line, a long with the shiny, new Ibis Hotel only means one thing for the Custom House area– it’s about to be gentrified.
Construction is due to come to an end by the end of next month much to the relief of the locals. Hopefully these fears will not be realised and Freemasons Road can be revived.