Under the railway bridge

Adjoa Wiredu looks at a traditional East End business struggling to survive

Alan Emery

Alan Emery outside Auto Clinic in Midland Road, Leyton

Auto Clinic is one of the last ‘proper’ East End mechanics still operating under a railway arch; a rare sight these days that may not last.

Railway arches all over London are being refurbished to make room for new cafes, bars, restaurants and even climbing frames – often as part of lucrative deals for Network Rail or Transport for London. The growing concern, however, is that older businesses are being priced out of a space that helped establish a specialist trade along the Victorian railway lines.

Mechanics at both ends of Leyton Midland Road Station – Tilbury Road and Midland Road – have occupied arches along this road for nearly 50 years. They simply helped each other by being in the same patch and providing everything a customer could possibly need for their car, within a short walking distance. Head into that area now and it’s a smattering of shops; a tyre garage, a paint workshop and the last of the mechanics. Of the 34 railway arches in this area around the station, 27 appear to be either businesses or being used for storage.

I met with Alan Emery, who has been in the area for 40 years and currently runs Auto Clinic tucked under Leyton Midland Road Station, set slightly back from the high street. He tells me the business has been through many changes: “We started off there in 1968,” as he points to the car wash next door, “and then we went to Leytonstone High Road, and now here.” Alan has seen it all but unfortunately, he feels it’s all nearly over. “I came here in 1980… it’s only us here now and when our lease is up, I don’t expect they will renew it – we’ve got another six years I think.”

Alan’s new neighbours are a photography media company, a bakery, and a sushi takeaway business. When Alan first moved into these arches, it was very different: “There were repair shops up there, Fordco, that have now gone, but sold second-hand spares. We could accommodate anybody at any one time right here. All the main dealers and the big spares people have had to move out because local rent was so high.

“So you have a bit of a job sourcing parts today, whereas 30 years ago, it wasn’t a problem. They don’t stock as much now, the main dealers, because parts are so dear. If you want anything now it has to come from Germany, so that’s two or three days. I have an Audi in there, waiting for some air-conditioning pipes – that’s seven days.”

But it has been a successful business, Alan says, and they have benefited from being under the arches. “We did very well in the first few years, right up until the recession hit. We had 24 people working here at one time, a lot of people, then the recession hit and then we had to cut down.”

The area has had its fair share of trouble, it wouldn’t be the East End if it had not. Alan notes that these arches have also cleaned up. “They were all virtually derelict and every tom, dick and harry had one with different businesses. There was a club down there at one time and now they have refurbished them all. The railway and police closed them down because there was drugs and what knows down there.”

When I ask Alan how he’s managed to stay in Leyton, he makes it clear that it is not low rent. The rent has been increased every year expect once; the year of the Olympics. “It’s really expensive,” he says. “In 1968, I had a railway arch and I think that was about £4 a week and then ten years or so later Network Rail, which was then called Railtrack, realised the potential of renting these arches and started putting the rent up. So then it’s just been going up and up. Every three years we have a rent review and it goes up.”

When I approached Network Rail and asked about rental rates and their plans for arches in London, a spokesperson told me: “Our strategy for the management of our commercial estate is to work with our tenants to support the communities we operate in while delivering on our obligation to generate a return for the taxpayer.

“We have a number of arch enhancement projects in our development pipeline and are currently assessing which projects will provide the best outcomes for tenants and local communities.”

Alan believes Network Rail are now targeting a different business to fill the arches. It was a buzz when it started for them all those years ago but it seems that mechanics are not welcome any more: “Fifty years ago, [mechanics] came to life, the rents were affordable and today it’s a lot of money. The businesses have to be small contained businesses. If we contained this to just a small MOT testing station, we wouldn’t have any worries, but we’ve got loyalty to our workers, we’re looking after them and life’s harder today. Health and safety, pensions, everyone has to have a pension.”

Alan has retired now but it is very much a family business; his son is taking over. If they do need to move, Auto Clinic will continue elsewhere, but it’s a shame for Leyton and Waltham Forest to lose a locally grown business. He adds: “All the lads that have been here with me have been here from ten to 15 years, one just retired after 35 years.”

It’s also a great shame that a lifelong trade synonymous with its patch and its people, may need to find a new home.

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