Drab Glasgow is a warning on levelling down PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 30 October 2021 19:54

Drab Glasgow is a warning on levelling down

Iain Martin 27/10/2021


The city hosting Cop26 offer a lesson in how poor leadership and bad decision can trigger decades of sharp decline.


When all the talk from ministers is of levelling up, it is ironic that the government is about to take 30,000 climate change delegates from around the world to the city that stands as a textbook example of long-term decline and what could be termed “levelling down”. Welcome to Glasgow.


Other comparable cities have their problems, but Manchester and Birmingham have leadership and momentum, with powerful city and regional mayors. Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, is entering another of its boom phases. Fifty miles away, Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has the look of a place that is falling apart.


You may have heard that the city is in terrible shape before Cop26. There is rubbish in the streets thanks to industrial action by refuse workers. There are reports, some of them perhaps true, of attacks by rats. Either way, take a long walk around the city and what you see is unavoidable: the fabric is in a state of advanced and accelerating disintegration. The public realm is tatty, the poverty worsening.


Data compiled by the Centre for Cities from the Office for National Statistics reports that in 2018 Glasgow’s economic output per worker was £54,310. For Edinburgh it was £75,130 and for London £91,300. Glasgow remains stubbornly poor and the only sustainable answer long-term is for it to somehow become wealthier.


It’s Glasgow, so it is possible to treat this disaster as a joke. A Glaswegian friend says that at least the degradation means Cop26 delegates from the developing world will feel at home. He said that, not me. Such is Glaswegian sensitivity and low mood right now that the city that gave birth to Billy Connolly can no longer take a joke about itself.


Personally, I find its decline upsetting. Those of us from Paisley, my home town, have long looked down on Glasgow, regarding our neighbouring big city as distinct, apart. Truth is, though, if you’re from the west of Scotland, Glasgow is the hub, the centre. It’s about belonging too. Going to Glasgow University was the natural choice for me. When I say “home” I still mean greater Glasgow.


Not only is it a human disaster, with hundreds of thousands of Glaswegians living this decline daily, the city’s plight is also a highly instructive case study, a warning that should be studied by policymakers trying to understand why some places, through a combination of poor leadership and missteps, go backwards.


Glasgow’s fall can easily be turned into a simple game of blaming the SNP. The Nationalists have been in power in Scotland for 14 years. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, represents a Glasgow seat containing some of the worst deprivation in western Europe. But the story is much more complex and interesting than any “SNP bad and always to blame” narrative.


Its roots lie in the 1960s and 1970s, when Glasgow and the wider west of Scotland went through epic deindustrialisation. Arguably, no single metropolitan area and surrounding population experienced anything quite as all-encompassing, so rapidly, as here.


In the early 1960s, Glasgow could credibly still call itself the Second City of Empire, although the empire had gone. It appeared to be a commercial colossus, although in shipbuilding, manufacturing and services it was old-fashioned and under-invested. Still, it was an upwardly mobile, confident city. Watch the black and white footage in the Netflix documentary on Sir Alex Ferguson for a glimpse of that spirit, and see how sharply the locals dressed.


The dramatic shifts in trading patterns wreaked by early globalisation brought the edifice crashing down. Margaret Thatcher is blamed for this still in Glasgow, although it started well before her. (Such is Glasgow’s political culture that people will be blaming Thatcher when the bins are not collected in 2121.) It was actually during her era that an exciting revival began. The city underwent a highly successful regeneration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a handful of Labour politicians with foresight rebranded it as a cultural capital. There was the Garden Festival, and it was the European City of Culture in 1990. This was combined with the sandblasting of the buildings that had survived the modernist cull. The aim was to lure private investment.


Then something strange happened. Infuriatingly, under New Labour and in a mood of self-congratulation, Glasgow stopped heading in the right direction. The reinvention slowed, as though it had been a one-off sprucing up project. A complete rethink on economics, how the city should make its money and improve the lives of its citizens, was discussed but never happened. A friend who lives in Glasgow says: “It’s deeper than decades of unimaginative, stodgy politics, a disgracefully tiny tax base and lack of Holyrood vision. It’s as if the whole city energy generated by the Garden Festival and City of Culture years has slowly leaked away.”


The narrow tax base is a serious issue. Some of the more monied areas sit outside the city boundary but use the facilities, similar to American “doughnut cities” deemed hollow at the centre and affluent in the suburbs.


Even so there are signs of life. The expansion of the University of Glasgow campus is impressive. Barclays has been growing and its new centre by the River Clyde will have 5,000 employees. There are local entrepreneurs battling away and always interesting restaurants. These developments look like oases in a desert, though.


It largely comes down to an absence of leadership. The creation of a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh robbed Glasgow of attention, and secretly many non-Glaswegian Scots will be happy about that. To respond, Glasgow needs its own mayor, or elected provost, someone to fight for it and start restoring confidence. Most of all it needs new commercial energy and as much entrepreneurship as it can get. That’s what made Glasgow a great city in the first place.


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