Network Rail rent demands are knockout blow for Lawrence Okolie’s Hackney Downs boxing gym

Lawrence (back in red) with the kids at Koolbox Gym.

Lawrence (back in red) with the kids at Koolbox Gym. - Credit: Archant

Boxing coach Brian O’Shaughnessy was starting to see a real positive change in the kids at his gym before the club was priced out of its Hackney Downs railway arch.

Charlie Edwards celebrates his win with Brian O'Shaughnessy and Johnny Eames (pic Gianluca Rio Di Ca

Charlie Edwards celebrates his win with Brian O'Shaughnessy and Johnny Eames (pic Gianluca Rio Di Caro) - Credit: Archant

It wasn’t much to look at, but KoolBox Gym was changing the lives of youngsters in the area by instilling in them discipline, work ethic and team spirit.

They were also able to draw inspiration from Hackney’s own Team GB heavyweight Lawrence Okolie, who trained there.

But in late December things came crashing down.

Brian and the other coaches who used the gym were struggling to pay the £18,000 annual rent and would regularly dip into their own pockets to help out.

So when they were called in by the landlord and told Network Rail had hiked the rent by an eye-watering 94 per cent – they knew it would be the knockout blow.

“It was a bombshell,” said Brian, a former coach at West Ham Boxing Club. “We just said ‘there’s no way we can afford that’.

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“Everyone was really devastated. Parents were saying there was nowhere else for their kids to go.

“You could see what was happening [at the gym]. You could see the change in the kids, especially with Lawrence there.

“One of them, he was a good kid but you could see his attention span was about 20 or 30 seconds – he couldn’t stay focused.

“It takes about two or three months to get it out of their system, for them to realise we’re not their teachers and they can come and have a good workout.

“Then he started to appreciate it a bit more and he was wanting to work as a tam – you could see the calming effect it was having.

“The parents couldn’t get them in the gym enough. Now we’ve now got another place in Stepney Green, but a lot of the kids won’t be able to travel there.”

Network Rail is also facing pressure from Hackney Council and MP Meg Hillier over its “crippling” rent increases in London Fields and elsewhere in the borough.

Commenting on the situation with Koolbox, a Network Rail spokeswoman said: “At the end of the tenants three year lease Network Rail offered renewal terms at market rent. The tenant did not accept these renewal terms and decided to sell his business to a third party who continue to operate within our arch estate.

“We are obliged by the government to deliver value for the taxpayer and all of the money generated by our estate is reinvested back into the railway. We aim to deliver value in the local communities in which we operate.”