Speech at the Launch of the Paddington Business Circle on the Paddington Regeneration Project
When people ask me about the firm of solicitors where I have worked for more than 30 years, I tell them that we are the biggest law firm in a small town called Paddington.
People who know London well understand that this City of ours has grown from a series of interconnected villages – to take one example, in a direct line, there’s Marylebone, Paddington, Notting Hill, Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith – but many do not appreciate that some of us can grow up, live, raise a family, and work, all within one of these villages. Of course they grow in size and in population, which is why I think of Paddington as a small town, and not just a village.
My father was for years an Alderman and a Parliamentary candidate of the old Borough of Paddington, and since I was six months old I have lived within one mile of where we are this evening. My two sons were born in St. Mary’s hospital, and the firm that my father started was originally based in Edgware Road, and, since 1963, has been at 133 Praed Street. I even went to Law School in the old College of Law in Lancaster Gate.
And what has it been like to live and work in the same small town? Pretty good actually. I was able to get home to see the kids bathed, was able to pop into the office for 30 minutes on a Sunday to sort out Monday’s tasks, and to walk up the street and be greeted by my clients, as I passed their shops and hotels. It was, I admit, sometimes a problem when two clients wanted to sue one another, but even that we could usually sort out with a little arm twisting.
What is fascinating is to try to work out what this small town will be like when the development is finished. Imagine another small town, Weston Super Mare or perhaps Durham, in which there appears into its heart, sky-scrapers for world class businesses, homes for thousands of newcomers, and a transport system like the Heathrow Express, from which each year millions of new arrivals will descend on its streets, buses and tubes.
If you can imagine this, you can see that the Regeneration Project offers both a huge opportunity and a terrible threat.
The area, and its main artery, Praed Street, can grow and prosper and improve, or could be choked and die, and with it, the businesses that have operated there – some, like ours, for decades, others, for just a few months.
We’ve already seen the threats – the loss of Globe Stationers after 50 years, the closure of Cliffords the furniture shop, the disappearance of two ironmongers within 200 yards, and there are others we all can identify.
Perhaps there is not much that can be done to preserve these specialised, family-owned shops in the new economy of multiples, and the web, and mail-order shopping. I realise that the clock cannot be turned back. But maybe we can and should do something to slow down the pace of change.
We all know what effect an out-of-town superstore can have on a small town High Street. We must try to avoid that effect here.
We should identify the issues and, where they are such, the problems of the area – the litter, residents dumping their rubbish in the street, the petty crime, for instance the telephone box cards, and of course the congestion. Sometimes I have to fight to get off the bus that I often catch from Westbourne Grove to Praed Street. I view with horror the daily struggle to get on to that bus in Praed Street by travellers, arriving at the station, trying to get to the West End, and regret the demise of the great British tradition of the queue.
I see the closure of the small family businesses and the long-established shops. I know what kills them – increased rents, no parking, high business rates, and multiples with their purchasing powers and their advertising budgets.
What can be done? Well we at WPF glasner gerber shapiro (soon to be WGS) have done several things. We have more than doubled in size, to give a better service and to gain economies of scale, the old firm of Wegg-Prosser’s realised that we lacked in depth litigation expertise so we merged with a firm of litigators, now we can offer legal services to businesses of all sizes and to individuals, across the social and economic spectrum. We became more modern, and accessible. We became more IT savvy. We didn’t try to get cheaper. We did try to get better. We also decided to stay at an accessible size. We realised that clients want to know which individual they will deal with in an ongoing relationship and so decided to avoid the anonymity of the big City firms.
And it’s not just us. Barry Brothers originally just Locksmiths have done the same. They more than doubled in size, they advertised, they enjoy a national reputation. They, like us, will survive, and, I am sure, will prosper. But will others? Surely the Council should turn its attention to this issue. How can Visa and M & S work with my firm? I rather doubt that they can or will. So what do we do? Use our imagination. Let them know we are here. Their staff buy houses, need to make wills, and, sometimes, to get divorced.
We can deal with all of those problems. Did those businesses use Barry Brothers for their locks, safes and security supervision? Possibly not, but they should, and if they are represented here tonight, I hope they will. I know that those companies make charitable donations – for instance, a number of them, and especially British Waterways, have supported Beauchamp Lodge a local charity. But they must do more. They must also support the economic community.
And what about the Council? Well, they can enforce planning legislation, discourage late night cafes, limit the internet cafes. But let us hope that they will also use their imagination, spend some money, improve the street furniture, sort out the nightmare of taxi access to Paddington Station, cosset the local businesses and the local residents.
We must continue to be able to offer to our local businesses the service that my firm, and others like us, have offered for many years. We must not be intimidated by the new businesses that will move in.
It is obvious to us all here today that this is a huge opportunity for the area and those who work here. Ten years ago the images that came to mind of Paddington Station and Praed Street were almost universally negative – petty crime, prostitution, and run-down shops. Today the image is completely different, tower blocks, the regeneration of the Canal, one of the biggest hotels in Europe, the new hospital, the £60m refurbishment of the old Great Western Hotel. No one who has watched the quality of the work to that building can be anything but excited at the prospect of it being completed, and not just because it’s so good to see the traffic jams in front of the hotel eased at last.
So we should be positive, optimistic, purposeful, demanding, imaginative and resourceful. We must seize the opportunity, nag the Council to make sure that the public spaces, between the high rises, are oases and not wind tunnels. The future can be influenced by us. The Council need and welcome our input. Let us make sure we give it.
Please support local businesses, buy your flowers from the florists in Praed street, get involved in the community, help local schools and colleges, and enjoy Paddington, and imagine that, in a couple of years, we will be working, and maybe more of you will be living in, not any longer a small town, but a vibrant big town, Paddington.