21 Jul 2021
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
In my neighbourhood there are several businesses I am relieved to see have made it through the pandemic.
I count two restaurants, a coffee shop and a particularly good independent bookshop that help define the character of the area, and I sincerely hope with an amended Level 0 being reached on Monday they have survived the worst. I cannot yet be so confident about Glasgow city centre.
The First Minister has been determined to emphasise that the crisis is not over and that there is no Freedom Day for Scotland. Independent businesses serving our city centre are very well aware of that.
In particular they must wait for a green light that the return to the office is sanctioned. According to the latest footfall data measured from mobile phones and published by the Centre for Cities, only 10 per cent of weekday commuting had returned by the end of June.
I heard one coffee shop business with outlets in Helensburgh and in the city centre state last week: “It’s like Christmas every day in the Helensburgh shop and deserted in the city.”
Larger cities have tended to suffer the most economic damage but the UK’s three biggest, in London, Manchester and Birmingham, were better, with 17%, 16% and 20% of recovered commuting respectively.
The very low residential population in Glasgow’s city centre may be part of the reason for Glasgow’s shortfall as may be the tougher messages coming from the Scottish Government supporting home working. Edinburgh though has almost one-fifth of its office workers back in the centre.
Does it matter if Glasgow city centre struggles if the overall recovery is strong? Is it not good that smaller towns and suburbs are recovering well since the story of the last decade has been the withering of local high streets? I am nervous to say the least when I hear questions like these.
It is more than 35 years since a McKinsey report for the Scottish Development Agency recommended that the rebuilding of the city’s battered economy should start with a city centre that was an architectural jewel, had the makings of a tourist destination and could be the base for a growing services sector.
One notably prescient insight steered the city towards the importance of demand for software services. Look behind the doors of several prominent businesses in the city’s international financial services district (IFSD) and you will find the software technology hubs that McKinsey envisaged.
Glasgow’s city centre has been the engine room of the jobs growth for the wider region for more than 20 years. Even in a new world of hybrid working the centre will remain the base for those growing companies.
Their offices may well be reshaped but I have heard no suggestion that they will be closed or relocated. Perhaps their staff will be coming into the office three days a week instead of five but youth training, team-building, and complex innovation are all reasons offices will be retained.
And since we all want more investment in public transport how much more difficult will that be when our existing systems are built around our city centre and our centre is in decline?
For me just as important is the survival of those independent businesses that rely on city-centre footfall. We don’t have enough entrepreneurs in Scotland to lose any of those we already have.
I have been listening to even the most creative and determined struggling to see how they overcome all that has been thrown at them over the past 16 months.
I would urge the Scottish Government to give that green light for office return on 9 August.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 21 July 2021