Len Maloney and Guardians of the Arches
How one mechanic saved his business – and is fighting to save many more
Five years ago, Len Maloney thought his car garage was finished. His landlord, Transport for London, turned up on his doorstep and said his rent was increasing threefold. “I said to them, here’s the keys,” he remembers. Instead, he got involved with the East End Trades Guild, a different kind of trade union based on a medieval model that represents small businesses and micro-enterprises in East London. In 2017, Len delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street calling for the government to offer relief to his sector of car mechanics, nurseries, bakeries and cafes: the kinds of businesses that are the backbone of communities. The Guild led to the creation of the Guardians of the Arches, a tenants association for traders in arches owned by Transport for London (TfL) and Arch Co, the Blackstone-backed organisation that bought all the Network Rail inventory, containing 4,000 small businesses employing 25,000 people, in 2018. Here, Len tells how the Guild saved his business – and how the Guardians are fighting to save many more.
Interviewed on August 8, 2017
My name’s Len Maloney and I’m a garage owner in the middle of Hackney. I’m in Haggerston, E8, I’ve been here 11 years. I had to move here because the new Hackney station had to be built for the Olympics and in the end TfL rehoused me here.
In the other location, I was there since 1982 as a youngster. I managed to get to a place where I could run the workshop by myself, so my boss got a shop and I ran the garage. The letters JC belong to that wonderful gentleman by the name of Joe Chee. He was a chap I met when I was at school. In the evenings I would pop by his garage and help out.
He said to me, “If you’re ever in trouble, come back and see me.” And I ended up in trouble, so I went back to see him.
I needed guidance. I needed a role model. Joe put me under his wings and I felt like I was needed. And he saw that, and he encouraged me more and more and eventually he relied on me. Mainly he did VW cars and he showed me the tools and how to repair those old VW cars and vans. We went on for some years together, he sold parts and I did the work. We made a good team.
He fell ill but he didn’t say anything to me. Eventually he told me what was wrong and he said he wanted me to carry on. He later died and by that time the shop and workshop were still there. I couldn’t do the shop so I ran the workshop. That’s what I was good at.
Now I have got Singh, Hakeem, about three more. There are others who have been with me and who are still at the outskirts, possibly wanting to step back in.
I’ve always said, “The door is open if you ever end up in trouble,” just like Joe said for me.
These kids just appear. I’ve had parents walk in and ask me to take someone. One of the dads said to me, “You can discipline him.” I said, “No, but I’ll do my best to keep him straight.” I’ve had their friends hanging around outside and I’ve said they can’t come here, it doesn’t look good. When they settle in they say, “I don’t know why they come here Len,” and eventually they fade off, one by one.
These arches have been here a long time. I remember when the trains didn’t run and they would leak water, you used to have to brush the water out. The arch is ideal for what we do because it’s easily maintained. It just makes sense to me, it’s become part of my thing.
These arches are the Kingsland Viaduct, and suddenly they have become very valuable it seems. It’s become a bit of a struggle to stay in them.
But the fight continues because I need to let those people know how important I am for the community and those people walking by every day. I think it’s important for young people to see small businesses. It stimulates their mind to see what they need to do.
The rent has gone up… at one point a representative from TfL came in and said we’re looking to take between £70-80,000 in rent, up from £22,000. I said to him, “Here are the keys.”
I just couldn’t believe it. He looked at me, we stared each other out and I said, “I’ve got to go somewhere.” Due to past experiences, I had a feeling he wouldn’t be coming back. This is a psychological thing they do where they come in and measure the property again, even though it hasn’t changed in size. I then decided to get the petition online to get a reaction from the public. At one point I was reading what people were saying, tears came to my eyes.
I’m now in a position where I haven’t got a neighbour to my left, I haven’t got a neighbour to my right and even beyond that place there used to be a couriers, they’ve gone as well.
It’s getting a bit lonely on this street. I was here when it was British Rail, those old trains. I was there then. Then the trains disappeared and no one wanted to be under the arches because it was lower class. Now, it’s upper class. It’s got to be for them to want that kind of money. It’s amazing how expensive it is to be in an arch.
I could go anywhere I want to go in England but would I survive? I don’t think so because my customers are here. I need to be here. My home is here, I was born in Hackney, went to college here, trained here, employed people here. I can’t see me working for someone, I’ve been an employer. That has to continue.
Interviewed on February 8, 2021
I’m still in business! I’m not getting as much pressure as I was before. I’m talking with people fairly high up in TfL. Every now and then TfL call me, and talk to me about what’s going to happen with the portfolio. So at the moment there is peace.
The man who was hounding me for the last fifteen years has been removed. I think they received complaints from other tenants as well. Now I’m just paying as I go. I see the other arches and they are all going through the same thing that I was going through, so I’m trying to work out another petition to help them as well. I’ve been getting lots of phone calls and tenants are ringing me up in tears and telling me what they are going through.
With the Guardian of the Arches, I am in those meetings and there are people feeling suicidal, they are being told to leave.
I think TfL are doing more than the Arch Co to support tenants. They are under pressure. Rent is still being pushed up even though this stuff is going on. A lot of the tenants of the Arch Co are feeling double the pressure that I was in the past. Now I am talking to the man who wrote our petition in 2015 about doing another one. There are rules and regulations that the government has developed to help landlords and tenants, but there are so many loopholes there, people keep breaking the rules. For example, security of tenure is being removed, and that’s a parliamentary act that should be looked upon as serious.
The Guild is pushing forward to help as many businesses as possible. I’m still here for them when they need me. But I’m also in Guardians of the Arches. What I would like to see is Guardians and East End Trades Guild and New Economics Foundation working a bit closer together. People who are well-educated in certain fields, we have to get them together to sit down in a room and come up with a draft to put to the government.
Too many businesses have a massive great big cloud over their head – especially now – and I don’t think enough is being done.
Landlords are ruling the roost and having their own way. How can businesses grow in that environment? Businesses are being stifled.
My business is fine, the young people are still here working and the loyal customers are still loyal. Meanwhile along the street here, the majority of businesses that came in are not able to function. The gym was on News at 10 the other day for opening illegally. The new restaurant is around 90 per cent down on business. Next to me, a photographic studio, in the first lockdown they got told to close, now they are able to open but it’s quiet. The gin distillery is allowed to open but it seems quiet.
The first lockdown, on the first day I came down here and I walked all the way along the Kingsland Viaduct and all the businesses were shut. Mine was the only one that was allowed to open.
So it was a bit weird - the opposite of whey they said. All that time they were trying to get rid of me, pumping in all those new, posh businesses and now, they can’t function. There’s a street round the corner, all of them are shut. The businesses where they thought the money was – ok, fine – maybe they will get the money in. But now, for them to open back up, I don’t know how much more furlough the government’s going to give them.
I would not be here if it wasn’t for the Guild. Because of the petition, those higher up people in TfL came to see me. Sat down in a restaurant and said we can see your value.
I feel passionate about it. I go to these meetings with Guardians. And from what I am hearing about what these tenants are going through, it’s like abuse. They are going round in circles. I said we need to get a petition sorted out, 100,000 people, and put in the petition that the government needs to be a bit tougher. The lawyers and surveyors have ways of bending and twisting the act. Right now, the petition needs to happen, it needs to happen. And one by one they said that’s the way we need to go.
Support traders like Len by buying from them: they have a shop! The East End Trades Guild is also looking for a community organiser, apply here. Guardians of the Arches members are all over the UK, join them, or find out more about how you can help. Finally, if you like this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to someone else who might like it – it’s free. Or show your appreciation with a heart above or comment below. Till next week, stay warm!