01 Sep 2021
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
On a recent 10-day break in London I noted local media coverage of current London Underground usage data.
It revealed weekday traffic in August has been reaching over 50% per cent of pre-pandemic levels for the first time since the crisis began but with stations predominantly serving office workers such as Bank and Canary Wharf still a long way short of that. Unlike on previous visits to the capital, not once did I fail to get a seat.
Visitor numbers to England’s attractions for 2020 were also released last week. London’s attractions were the hardest hit with a ‘lower confidence in using public transport’ given as the main reason. England’s top attraction since 2009, the Tower of London, saw an 85% drop against an average decline of 65%. The Tower experience is certainly easier to appreciate when the patronage is so limited.
London remains at the bottom of the Centre for Cities think tank’s high street recovery tracker. At the end of July footfall measured by anonymised mobile phone data was languishing at 35% of the levels in February 2020.
Amongst the 63 large town and city centres the recovery tracker is monitoring, Glasgow has edged up the table in the past month from having the fourth worst footfall recovery to the sixth worst, with activity in the city now just under pre-pandemic figures.
But that remains heavily biased towards the weekends and night time economy. Glasgow still has the lowest weekday footfall of any city in the tracker. The Centre for Cities’ Workers Recovery Index for Glasgow is 8%. Even London is reaching 15%.
Scotland’s cities were around three weeks later in lifting restrictions and the next tracker report will be the first that captures the outcome of the Scottish Government’s move beyond Level 0.
The First Minister has however continued her downbeat messaging against returning to the office and many larger businesses are reluctant to move any faster in bringing their staff back to the city centre than the Scottish Government suggests. Nor are we expecting to see universities resuming face-to-face teaching at anywhere near normal levels until next year.
The job retention scheme finishes this month, and for many businesses serving office staff or students in the city centre the outlook remains bleak.
In the short-term businesses will continue pressuring the Scottish Government to decide when the guidance on the home working default is no longer needed and when universities and colleges are clear to return to normal.
Equally we will be paying close attention to any decisions that reduce availability of public transport. Reducing train or bus services to balance current budgets will make it more difficult for the city centre to recover.
The city centre also has to work harder to attract visitors. It needs to be clean, safe and well presented. The City Council has put its weight behind the Glasgow City Centre Task Force and is responding to business feedback on issues like graffiti, damaged street furniture and street cleaning. The opportunity for restaurants and cafes to spill out onto the pavements has been a welcome and highly visible improvement.
But in the longer term the city centre will also have to adapt. More spaces to live, new opportunities for businesses that want to be close to our universities, a fresh look at the scope for independent retail and perhaps fun family friendly attractions – these are all options.
London is a world city and I would not be surprised to see it rebound quickly. Glasgow will have more work to do and need more support but we should be aiming to do the same.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 1 September 2021