The Mail on Sunday
16th July 2011
By Emily Hill and Richard Creasy
Drive out of London on the A40 from Acton to Greenford and you’ll spot six of them in just seven minutes. Vast, brightly coloured self-storage centres are popping up on the outskirts of every major British city.
These monolithic eyesores offer something very, very precious: space.
Back in the Seventies there was a far more discreet refuge for all those items we couldn’t live with but didn’t want to live without.
The lock-up garage held our childhood nick-nacks, furniture in need of repair, family heirlooms and useless collections.
It was rare to see an episode of The Sweeney or Only Fools And Horses that did not feature a lock-up.
But the number of people who have garages for storage has shrunk, while people are living longer and accumulating increasing amounts of ‘stuff’.
The boom in storage is also being fuelled by modern lifestyles – downsizing and a rise in divorce rates in particular.
Meanwhile, ‘boomerang kids’ – young people unable to get on the property ladder who moved back in with their parents because of sky-high rents – are also putting belongings in the big tin warehouses. The trend for converting attics and basements into living areas means a further reduction in storage space.
As a result, the self-storage business is more and more lucrative. On average it now costs £200 a month to hire 100 sq ft, and considerably more in London.
This month, the Self Storage Association reported that the business is so buoyant that the UK’s seven biggest operators – Safestore, Big Yellow, Access, Lok’nStore, Shurgard, Big Box and Space Maker – together now make more than £200 million a year.
Acquiring a storage unit is relatively straightforward. But for some, as the months turn into years, thousands of pounds can be spent as a temporary solution becomes permanent and monthly fees slip out of bank accounts in direct debits.
There are strict rules about what can be stored. Banned items include food (unless securely packed), birds, fish and animals, flammable materials, firearms, explosives, weapons, chemicals, radioactive materials, any item that emits fumes, illegal substances and compressed gasses.
‘Every customer needs to provide both proof of identity and proof of address,’ says Rodney Walker, chief executive officer of the Self Storage Association.
‘We have been tightening up security and we will go on tightening it up.’
And, oh yes, you can’t live in the units.
So just what is inside those boxes? From a Star Wars fanatic to a self-confessed ‘boomerang kid’, here’s a selection of people who couldn’t get by without self-storage.
Barry and Madelon Blood have been renting a 50 sq ft storage unit since April for £108 a month.
The couple are storing their possessions while they downsize their home.
They have already sold their three-bedroom terrace house near the football stadium in Crewe, Cheshire, and are moving to a two-bedroom bungalow a mile away.
But as Madelon is semi-disabled, they need time to adapt the new house to her needs. They are still living in their old house while work takes place.
Also in their storage unit are the belongings of their two sons.
Nathan, 30, who works in the travel industry, is abroad. Meanwhile, Adam, 28, is travelling in South America. Both left keepsakes and CD and DVD collections with their parents – who were struggling to find room.
‘I don’t know what we would have done without a storage unit,’ says retired postman Barry, 58.
‘We probably would have had to sell everything on eBay or at a car-boot sale.’
THE DINOSAUR MAN
Gary Beswick’s company sells everything from a £2 shark tooth to a £5,000 Psittacosaurus dinosaur skeleton and a £24,995 Ice Age woolly mammoth tusk.
Dinosaurs and Fossils is the largest eBay retailer of fossils in the UK.
The 42-year-old has a 300 sq ft storage unit at BiG Storage in Warrington, Cheshire, which he rents for £300 a month. He finds it essential to the smooth running of his business.
‘We’ve been using it for only three months,’ says Gary. ‘The company was just growing too fast to cope in the space we already had. I store thousands of tons in the self-storage unit. I’ve got mammoth bones there that are 10,000 years old through to ammonites and trilobites that are up to 500 million years old.’
Beswick, who worked in retail management before setting up his own company in 1995, supplies to private collectors, museums and schools across the world.
‘Now turnover stands at more than a million,’ he says. ‘Fossils don’t have a sell-by date and they don’t go down in value.’
THE STAR WARS COLLECTOR
Businessman Dave Bailey, 39, spends more than £150 a week renting a 600 sq ft storage unit to house his £60,000 collection of Star Wars memorabilia.
‘I have been collecting Star Wars toys since the film came out when I was five years old. We’ve got quite a big loft. It’s rammed full of them. Last year, I began collecting lifesize Star Wars models. We have a lifesize Yoda at home in the lounge but that was as far as my wife would let me go.’
The answer was the Lok’nStore in Sunbury, Middlesex. ‘I started to rent a room here. Then I bought statues of Darth Vader and Jar Jar Binks. They are over 7ft tall – so I doubled the size of my unit. Then Princess Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Darth Maul turned up. So now my unit is a treble garage. That’s given me room to put a Tardis in it.’
But doesn’t he miss having Darth Vader, R2-D2 and co at home? ‘I visit the unit at least once a week,’ he says.
THE BOOMERANG KID
Claire Mitchell, 28, started hiring a 25 sq ft unit for £60 a month when she moved back in with her parents 18 months ago.
‘My boyfriend Lee and I lived together but then he got a job in Surrey,’ says Claire, a freelance media producer who uses Safestore in Worsley, Greater Manchester.
‘I couldn’t afford to carry on renting so I moved back in with my mum and stepdad. I’ve moved back a couple of times since university and my mum didn’t want all my stuff cluttering up the house again.
‘It’s been a blessing in disguise because I now pay a small contribution to my mum and save the £450 a month I would have spent on rent towards buying a new house.
‘But I probably could have bought anything that’s in the storage unit twice over with the amount of money I’ve now spent.’
THE TAE KWON DO INSTRUCTOR
Martial arts instructor Mark Gopaul ran out of space at home to store the clothing and equipment he needed as his business Mazuki grew.
The 43-year-old, who has a three-bedroom home in Balham, South London, hired storage space at a Big Yellow facility five minutes from his home.
‘I teach tae kwon do to 400 students and also sell equipment and clothing and import a load of gear from Asia,’ he says.
‘It got to the stage where I couldn’t move in my own cluttered home. So for the past four years I have paid £400 a month to use the self-storage unit.
‘I get the use of a space about half the size of a squash court and it works fine. Thanks to the security, all my stuff is safe and I can retrieve whatever I need from early in the morning until late at night.’