PETE Day owns a garage in North London. He employs six people and makes a modest annual profit. He’s been there since the early 1980s, navigating his small enterprise through several choppy recessions. He’s a good boss: three of his mechanics have been with him for more than 15 years.
But things have been tough lately, and they’re about to get tougher. He lost a long-serving employee to Covid last year and, at 69, he’s been dealing with some health issues of his own. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2020, he’s just completed a course of radiotherapy. He looks well: rosy-cheeked and bubbling with life. And when talking about his company’s current travails, there’s defiance in his voice – a characteristic which has, I’m sure, facilitated his stewardship of a successful business over the last 40-odd years.
He berates the Government for its planned rises in both Corporation Tax and National Insurance, two unnecessary burdens which, in his view, compound the cost-of-living crisis. His most scornful attack, however, is reserved for Network Rail’s sale of the arches in which he plies his trade, along with the sale of another 5,260 rental spaces, predominantly based in the capital. The company which bought the sites back in 2019 – against a backdrop of vociferous protests from leaseholders who formed the ‘Guardians of the Arches’ pressure group, and some MPs – is aptly named The Arch Company, a company owned by Telereal Trillium and Blackstone Property Partners.
Leaseholders and concerned public servants protested against the sale on the basis that extortionate rent rises being demanded by Network Rail would get even worse under private ownership. I’m not sure if their fears have been realised, but unreasonable, often ruinous rent increases have certainly not gone away.
The Arch Company has recently demanded a 300 per cent increase in Pete Day’s rent, a figure that, if agreed, would drive him out of business and his six employees to the dole office. One of them is almost 60, leaving him with little chance of finding alternative work. And even if Pete successfully negotiates a reduction to, say, a 62 per cent increase (a figure that a neighbouring business has just agreed upon), it will still be ruinous. A thriving small business with long-standing ties to the local community will be expunged by an unethical, rapacious, billion-dollar corporation run by – surprise, surprise – an Oxbridge-educated executive chairman.
Blue-collar workers, honourably providing for their families, are going to lose their jobs at the behest of a malignant behemoth.
And as for Boris Johnson, doesn’t he spend most of his time rhetorically championing small and medium-sized businesses? Aren’t they lauded as the backbone of our economy? The reality is very different. Crony capitalism is alive and well. Huge, anti-competition corporations, just like state-run bureaucracies – namely Network Rail – are crushing small businesses, free enterprise and the dynamism necessary for a thriving, growing economy.
Perhaps most damaging of all, though, is the sense of injustice and unfairness that such egregious abuses of power stir. Why would anyone wish to set up a small business? The National Audit Office would almost certainly advise against it, I’m sure. In a report into the sale of the arches, published in 2019, its authors lamented the blithe lack of consideration given to the concerns and interests of tenants during the process. In other words, the poor tenants were an afterthought.
Pete Day looks at me and, with a determined twinkle in his eye, says: ‘I’m not going down without a fight.’ I’m left with little doubt that he’ll be true to his word.