14 Apr 2021
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
We would normally expect the work of any government to wind down during an election campaign but after spending much of the last two weeks consulting with businesses in Glasgow’s city centre there is a thirst for action which ought not to wait until the new Scottish Government is in place after May 6.
A city centre is by its nature a complex construct brimming with interdependencies. The residents, the transport hubs, the office districts and their workers, the shopping streets, the educational institutions and their students, the nightlife and the countless small businesses that find opportunities to thrive evolve together over time into the distinctive cultural experience that makes cities so attractive that the majority of the world’s population now live in them.
For most cities the city centre is – as I recall one former Leader of Glasgow City Council explaining – the front room where your best furniture is on display.
In times of normality it is the interdependencies that guarantee a city centre’s enduring success, with the decline of any one element usually offset by the rising significance of another. For instance before the pandemic began high-street shopping had been under pressure from online retail but the leisure sector had been gradually taking its place.
However in these times of crisis those interdependencies are now an obstacle to recovery with many city centre businesses worrying the Scottish Government road map leaves them unsure when or if it will be possible to open. There are gaps in the April-May map that are potentially damaging.
Perhaps the most important gap concerns the reopening of non-essential offices. Without the workers returning to desks in the office districts, the specialist shops, the restaurants and the sandwich and coffee shops that rely on their business may have to stay shut.
The Scottish Government’s road map says there will be a ‘phased return of some office staff’ from the end of June, but there is no more detail than that and not much evidence of government activity to provide that detail.
Businesses are not asking for dates to be speeded up or for unnecessary risks to be taken. They are simply asking for the plan to be fleshed out. It is now six weeks since the First Minister made her announcement of the Scottish road map. Are we to wait at least another month until the election is over before city centre businesses can make more definite decisions?
I detect many city centre businesses are getting rather fed up hearing politicians and officials telling them that we must plan for a reshaping of the centre since so many more people will be working from home. That may or may not be true, the evidence is mixed. But until we work out how we can reopen offices we won’t know.
The planning for major events is another gap and one that is especially damaging to city centre hotels. It is very welcome news that the Scottish Government has agreed there will be spectators in Hampden for the UEFA Euro 2020 matches in June. Perhaps this will be the catalyst for further thinking on the plans for opening up for audiences for other sports events, festivals, concerts and theatre shows later in the year.
The guidance for colleges and universities on the gradual expansion of capacity limits on student numbers is another gap.
The Scottish Government has set up a new national taskforce for city centres. That too is welcome.
Debates on the longer-term future for city centres will be important but let’s help businesses now by expanding the short-term road maps leading to reopening.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 14 April 2021