GLASGOW has never stayed the same. It is the city of change, and contrasts. The dear green place. The stone-and-steel metropolis built on coal, rail, and ships. The city that felt pain when the great industries declined, and promise in the social and technological changes of the 50s and 60s. And through it all, Glaswegians have always loved to celebrate and promote a truly remarkable place, at the Empire Exhibition of the 30s, the Garden Festival in the 80s, and through the famous Smiles Better campaign. Highs. lows. Success. Struggle. But always change.
The great question now, however, is how Glasgow will rise to the next change, the next challenge: the transformation that’s happening in city centres, the altering shape of the High Street, the shift from shopping on foot to shopping online. Glasgow is a retail and a cultural powerhouse and one of the UK’s biggest and best destinations for shopping. But it has not been immune to the effect of new habits, the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic. As with any other city, the crises have left their mark.
The latest figures, reported in The Herald today, are sobering. According to the Vacancy Monitor from the Scottish Retail Consortium and the Local Data Company, one in six shops in Scotland is lying vacant, with the SRC warning the occupancy rates may struggle to ever fully recover. One piece of good news for Glasgow though is that, despite extra challenges such as the rail strikes, the December sales in the city centre were 15 per cent ahead of the same month in 2019, which is better than Manchester and Leeds and considerably better than Edinburgh. Compared to last year, sales were up 30 per cent. This is a small but significant reason for some optimism.
But most of those who care about the heart of Glasgow – the shop owners, the small businesses, the commuters and visitors, the civic leaders – recognise change is needed and that Glasgow must reimagine its city centre and embrace change and transformation in a way it has done many times before so brilliantly. Big shopping centres for example are no longer the straightforward answer they once appeared to be; indeed, shopping itself is only part – an important part – of the solution and the path we take from here.
To its credit, Glasgow City Council has already started the work that needs to be done. A consultation is under way on how the Golden Z of Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street, and Argyle Street should develop in the future and there is already a recognition that, while the city is still quite rightly committed to retail, other elements – residential, restaurants, culture, and green spaces – must play a bigger part. This week we saw images of the kind of project that could replace the Buchanan Galleries and its concept of an urban village is a hopeful blueprint for the future.
However, Glasgow City Council will need support to achieve its aims. Councillor Angus Millar, co-chair of the City Centre Taskforce and convener for Climate, Glasgow Green Deal, Transport and City Centre Recovery, makes the point that the city council can only go so far under the current set-up. Not only have council budgets been severely cut, the Scottish Government has also increasingly ring-fenced the money it does hand out, meaning councils effectively have less to spend on their priorities. More powers for local authorities could mean a greater ability to act in the way they see fit and to take decisions that work specifically for Glasgow.
One issue in particular that needs attention is VAT. A crucial part of the re-imagining of Glasgow is attracting residents back into the centre and finding new uses for buildings which are no longer suitable for retailers. However, the conversion of a non-residential building into house or flats attracts five-per-cent VAT that doesn’t apply to a new build, which obviously creates an unwelcome incentive to build new rather than repurpose the old. Allowing councils to waive the VAT in such circumstances could help solve the problem and it is an issue the UK Government should look at urgently.
There are also lessons to be learned from other cities. Dundee for example faced post-industrial decline just like Glasgow and has focused on creativity and culture as a route to revival, most famously with the V&A. Something similar has happened in the Finnieston area of Glasgow where the Hydro has become a hub for one of the most buzzy and busy parts of the city. With careful planning and redesign, the effect could be extended across the M8 to Sauchiehall Street.
There are obstacles and challenges in the way of course and in the last three years one of them has been the sudden disappearance of the commuter due to the pandemic and their slow return to the centre, with a considerable knock-on effect on the businesses that rely on them. However, creating a centre that has the all-important “linger effect” means that businesses and their employees will want to be part of it. The Herald for example has witnessed many changes over its 240-year history – a history we are celebrating this week. But we have always been proudly based in the centre of Glasgow and will continue to be so.
There is no question however that Glasgow faces some challenges which are unique to it. The city has become one of the UK’s premier retail destinations, but that has meant that the city’s economy has relied strongly on shopping footfall and it's no secret that the footfall has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. It is one of the reasons the City Centre Taskforce was set up in the first place.
The good news is that the taskforce has made a good start by acknowledging that retail is an absolutely vital part of Glasgow’s success but that it’s not the only one. The council has committed to doubling the city centre population to 40,000 by 2035 and this is undoubtedly a good idea. Finnieston in the West and Merchant City in the East demonstrate how residents, shops and bars can co-exist to create vibrant mini-economies. It is a pattern that can and should be repeated across the city.
To succeed, the new blueprint for the city must also harness one of its greatest strengths: the people themselves. As Glasgow expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries, so Glaswegians also spread around the world, bringing with them their confidence, commitment and warmth and the people who live and work in the city today need to be part of the plan. Open sessions have been held at the Lighthouse in Glasgow to give its citizens a chance to offer their input and the city’s leaders should listen carefully to what they have to say and put the best ideas at the heart of their plans for the future.
What it all means in the end is that Glasgow in 10, 20 or 50 years may look and feel very different to the way it does now. But the aim is to build a city centre that works for how people live and work and shop and socialise now. There will be some who are nervous about the change – and who can blame them when some of the changes forced on the city in the past have caused so much damage? But the great source of hope for the future is Glasgow’s talent to thrive. It has been through the rise and fall of industry. It has survived the great revolutions of the 20th century: social, political, technological. And through it all it has managed to keep the best of the past and embrace the opportunities for the future.