Appetite and intent for change is clear – but we must make private sector investment easier to realise the city’s potential | Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
Stuart Patrick, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
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Appetite and intent for change is clear – but we must make private sector investment easier to realise the city’s potential

By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce 

It has been seven months since the publication of Glasgow City Council’s Golden Z report into the health and future of the three primary retail streets at the heart of Glasgow’s city centre. Last week the Council approved an action plan designed to tackle the damage done by a combination of the pandemic and the steady rise of online shopping. It is a plan that – in the main – the Chamber of Commerce supports.

Among the priorities is the doubling of the centre’s residential population either through new building projects such as Moda Living’s Holland Park development on Pitt Street or through the conversion of empty shop and office buildings such as the space left vacant by the collapse of Debenhams at the St Enoch Centre. Prioritised too, is the delivery of most of the recommendations of the Golden Z report, with a special focus on attracting new investment into a set of significant vacant sites on Sauchiehall and Argyle Streets.  There is continuing commitment to improving the quality of the public realm – including George Square – and to exploring the options for improving nighttime transport.

There has been no shortage of criticism levelled at the City Council for the management of the city centre - some of it justified and some of it less so.  Regardless, we all now appreciate the true depth and scale of the problem and therefore, the importance of a robust response.  Perhaps the approval of the Council’s action plan is a good moment to devote more energy to delivering much-needed solutions. We know the public sector is strapped for cash, so the private sector is inevitably going to be required to fund most of those solutions. We need to make that easier.

Given the centre’s sheer scale and economic importance, there will always be a pipeline of private investors keen to drive development so the first step must surely be to support proposals such as those from Landsec at Buchanan Galleries, Tracey Investments Limited at Charing Cross, Vita Group at the former ABC cinema site and Fusion Students for the old Marks and Spencer site.   Every one of these projects would attract fresh money and breathe new life into the regeneration of Sauchiehall Street.

Sauchiehall Street is quite obviously struggling with a dispiriting parade of empty shop units and the consequences of three major fires. A temporarily stalled public realm improvement scheme has not helped. There are urgent lessons to be learned about the management of public realm projects but the Council’s aspirations to make the centre more attractive for pedestrians remain right. 

Argyle Street has its own share of derelict shops but with the refitting works underway on two large units owned by the St Enoch Centre and Drum Property’s substantial mixed-use development at Candleriggs making very good progress, there are good reasons to be optimistic for its future.  Buchanan Street remains as robust as ever.

There are seven footfall counters measuring activity along these and surrounding streets and up to the last quarter of 2023 there had been steady improvement, reaching around 90% of the 2019 pre-pandemic levels.  At that point, Glasgow’s relatively slow return of staff to the office and widespread concerns about the health of the night-time economy remained the most contentious issues.

But footfall growth stuttered in the last weeks leading up to Christmas and has now reversed into decline. In January and February around 200,000 less people visited the city centre than in the same months last year. The cost-of-living crisis may be the primary reason although we cannot say that for sure. Performance across other UK cities has not been consistently poor. Leeds for example has still been growing.  Whatever the causes Glasgow’s city centre is weakening and we need the action plan to work.

Not everything that government is doing has been improving the odds for success. I have been struck by the simple suggestions from Sir Tom Hunter and Lord Willie Haughey in their weekly GO Radio business show; reduce the burden of business rates, lighten the load on parking charges and use the planning system to make Glasgow an easy place in which to invest.  That has not sadly been happening.

The Scottish Government chose instead to increase business rates by 8% for all premises with rateable values over £50,000.  That captures almost every unit in the city centre.

The City Council – once more wrestling with real terms cuts to its budget – is increasing parking charges and – in a move vigorously opposed by Chamber members – wants to extend those charges into the evenings from 6pm to 10pm when on-street parking has to date been free. Scottish Government cuts to funding for bus service improvements and for subway modernisation are also not helping. 

Chamber members would be less riled by car restrictions if they could see improvements in the public transport system, especially at night and on Sundays when the system is widely seen to be less available.  More positively, our survey work suggests that the experiment in removing peak train fares has helped to encourage more office workers back into town.

On planning, the City Council certainly does want to improve the speed and predictability of the approval process but, like authorities across the UK, it is losing experienced planners at an alarming rate, often to those private sector companies that are working on delivering net zero infrastructure. The Council’s action plan makes a specific and welcome commitment to a new property development support team to help improve relationships with potential investors and to be more proactive in encouraging development in the most prominent empty sites and buildings.

At times it has felt that too many decisions are being made which are hampering the city centre’s recovery. Glasgow’s centre remains by far the biggest concentration of employment and business investment in the region. It matters that we get this right.

Let’s hope that the delivery of the Council’s new plan will help to turn the tide of negative sentiment and stimulate a fresh wave of private investment into one of the most important economic engines in the country. It is this collaboration that will drive meaningful and positive change.

This article was first published in The Herald on Tuesday 2 April 2024

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