Just take a minute to imagine that you are running a business (or, indeed, renting a property). Now imagine your landlord raising your rent from £33,000 per year to £147,000.
This is what Ronnie and George Grant from Clapham North MOT were faced with last Christmas. Ronnie, who is 93½, first rented the arch that houses their business in 1960. After 58 years, a sudden 345 per cent overnight rent rise seems unjustifiable.
But they are not alone. Many of the 5,500 business operating out of the UK’s railway arches – which are set to be sold off by Network Rail and the government for a short-term cash injection (at the cost of long-term reliable income) – are facing similar demands.
Network Rail and the government are fattening up the calf for market, raising rents by unprecedented and unwarranted amounts to entice a hedge fund to buy the country’s railway arches.
Not only is it bad economics, but the privatisation of this public asset is injecting uncertainty into an already wobbly economic landscape. The Guardians of the Arches campaign, backed by The Big Issue, is determined to fight the unfair rent increases and stop the senseless sale.
The story of Clapham North MOT by George Grant
In 1960, my dad took the keys to Clapham North from a cab company. He has been there ever since. It was British Rail in those days. And when he took the keys, they said: “Ronnie, you can do whatever you want as long as you pay the rent.” He has been paying the rent for the last 58 years.
My dad adopted me when I was two. He has worked bloody hard. And the garage means a lot to me personally, because as a kid I used to run around getting in the way and teasing the workforce. I never really got involved in the company itself because my dad wanted me to achieve more.
Four years ago, he got a message from Network Rail saying, ‘We want to up the rent and move you out’. They tried to foreclose us and kick us out. I told him: “They can’t do that, Dad. You are a tenant. You have been there over 50 years and you come under the Security of Tenure Act 1954.” He was ready to pack it in.
All they are interested in is making much more money
Network Rail are so unethical in the way they systematically demoralise and dismantle businesses in their premises. They know the majority of people in these arches are hard-working small business entrepreneurs trying to make a living. But all they are interested in is making much more money.
We have been renting the arches and supporting the infrastructure for many years – and 57 years of rent is not an insignificant amount. We have never asked Network Rail or British Rail for anything. They have done absolutely nothing. Now they are dismantling and exterminating us. I find it extraordinary.
This is asset-stripping like you have never known. Like an old-fashioned car salesman, they go in, shake the foundations, frighten you, then make an offer and you think they have done you a favour. They are a public body. There needs to be business ethics to underpin everybody’s business – I can’t understand why they can’t be professional.
They are determined to destroy and disrupt the businesses of everybody who is in the arches. If you own public land and are taking money from people, you should have an obligation to understand the businesses and help them flourish.
At some of the larger stations they are doing it. Network Rail have some special contracts, where you get a subsidised rate and they take a cut. Why not discuss that with us? We are not in Shoreditch, we are not a hipster joint with thousands walking past us.
But if you drill down into every business, they support the ecosystem – not only the families involved, but the other local business they support by being there. We support local cafes, the local carwash where all our customers go, and we employ people and buy parts for customers’ cars and do MOTs and servicing. We have about 3,000 customers. They ask me what is going to happen when we go.
And I can tell you one thing: when the new owners come in, God help us, they will be 10 times worse.
That is why we need to join forces with Guardians of the Arches and form a proper trade association across the UK. That is what we need, and [Big Issue founder] John Bird is helping us with it.
Sir Patrick Head, the co-founder of the Williams Grand Prix team that revolutionised motorsport, worked in my father’s garage for years. So did John Barnard. John and Patrick built a car for my dad to race in before they went into Formula 1. They are the very best designers in the world and energised an entire generation of entrepreneurs into motorsport.
These are the things that happen, over many years – and this is happening right now. Many businesses are flourishing that we might not know about. And if you exterminate them now you are exterminating an entire business generation and all that potential.
It is a travesty. There are big questions [Transport Secretary] Chris Grayling and Theresa May need to answer and they need to stop the sale. Our future is trying to negotiate with Network Rail. That’s not proving to be easy. We may need to go to court – and that could put us under.
Image: Clapham North MOT