Guardians of the Arches - David takes on Goliath in East London and beyond
(Credit: Sarah Ainslie)
There’s an uprising happening against crippling commercial rents and it’s being led by little East End businesses.
When Leni Jones heard that Network Rail was planning to hike the rent by 364% at her family’s Ducati motorcycle repair company Rosso Corse, which operates under the arches at Bethnal Green, she took six months out of her day job at an accountancy firm and threw herself into campaigning.
Leni joined Derec Hickman of Chu’s Garage and numerous other railway property tenants whose businesses are threatened by rent rises. Guardians of the Arches was born and, as Leni prepares to go back to work, they’re now crowdfunding to raise £42,000 to turn it into a national and democratic organisation fighting for small businesses occupying railway property and with a paid employee.
In September, Network Rail sold off the majority of its arches to Blackstone and Telereal Trillium for £1.46bn. The National Audit Office confirmed this spring that the sale completed based on the suggestion of further rent increases of 56% over the next 3-4 years, and that the needs of small businesses were ignored when that sale took place. it hailed the Guardians of the Arches campaign as responsible for the new owners’ commitment to putting tenants first.
Leni, 39, who has three children with special needs, runs Rosso Corse with her husband Marcus.
She said: “We’re fighting for more than just our business – my children have needs including autism, ADHD, and hearing difficulties. We are not unique, we have a responsibility to safeguard their futures too and for the futures of young people and adults who are unlikely to find success working for large corporates. They should have the opportunity to dream and aspire to have something of their own and reach their potential - having affordable workspace available is absolutely key to that.
“We are uprising against monopolist landlords and crippling rent increases. The vulnerability we feel individually has led us to reach out to one another to fight this battle together. We have a common enemy – not in the form of the landlord but in the shape of the property market. Being put in a position of such high rent increases is traumatic – I get very tearful when I talk about it. The other businesses campaigning with us have become more than friends; we are like family!
(Unoccupied arches in London Fields)
“What is happening is so unjust that it builds a fire in you. The Arch Co own the vast majority of the railway property in the country – they use the phrase ‘it’s the market’ to justify crazy rent increases, but they are the market!” Railway property is also owned by TFL, Network Rail and other private landlords.
Guardians of the Arches have had considerable national press exposure, they’ve taken their fight to Parliament and won the support of 20 parliamentarians including Meg Hillier, Jeremy Corbyn and Zac Goldsmith and have amassed hundreds of members across the UK.
(Ronnie Grant, owner of Clapham North MOT)
Members include furniture restorers, metal-shop workers, café owners, hairdressers, tyre sellers, brewers, distillers, community leaders, gallery curators, specialist food sellers, artists, gym coaches, mechanics and more.
Their website states: “Just think of the potential of connecting over 7,000 small businesses as a single organised collective.”
Leni added: “We have a huge momentum now. The Government hasn’t done enough yet. What we’re doing is ground-breaking and it’s hard. There have been associations protecting the rights of residential tenants over the years but never commercial ones. Amongst other benefits we would also like to have a tenant’s hotline offering free legal, rent and lease negotiation advice for all our members. All these things require financing”
Campaigners are working with experts at the East End Trades Guild, the Greater London Authority, Queen Mary University and the New Economics Foundation to come up with a formula that enables organisations to work out what constitutes affordable commercial rents so landlords can’t get away with massive increases.
(The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s David & Goliath award: Stefan Baskerville of New Economics Foundation, Leni Jones of Rosso Corse Ltd, Nhi Chu of Chus Garage, Will Brett of New Economics Foundation and Krissie Nicolson of East End Trades Guild)
Working with the East End Trades Guild, local businesses are also creating an app called RentCheck which will enable them to input the rents they pay for their businesses – giving greater control and transparency on what rents are being used as comparables, preventing inaccurate claims by landlords about what constitutes ‘market rents.’ They’re supported by Hackney and Tower Hamlets Councils.
Among those campaigning with Guardians of the Arches are the team behind E5 Bakehouse in London Fields who have seen many of their neighbours in London Fields leave due to huge rent increases. If comparable rent information was available more could have been done to protect those businesses. Many of those arches still remain empty today.
The Guardians of the Arches campaign, which has also focused on the Government’s public asset sale of 5,261 arches, won the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s David and Goliath award 2019.
To support the Guardian of the Arches Crowdfunding Campaign, please visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/guardians
Please help spread the word about the Guardians of the Arches campaign by sharing this article on social media.
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