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Economy must take centre stage in election

By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce

The election campaign is underway and our daily diet of policy announcements has begun.

We are told by pretty much every party that pandemic recovery is the primary challenge a new Scottish Government will have to tackle and I am holding out hope that there will truly be a focus on the rebuilding of our economy and the strengthening of our business base.

One issue to which I will be alert is the plan for the resuscitation of our city centres which have taken a serious pounding throughout the crisis.

Glasgow city centre, as Scotland’s largest, is amongst the most severely affected with data from the Centre of Cities showing only London suffering a greater drop in footfall.

The majority of non-essential shops are scheduled to reopen on April 26 although we know there will be many including Debenhams and the Arcadia group outlets that are closed for good.

Some landlords will certainly be exploring alternatives for those empty units but it will take time for changes to be made.

Hospitality is due to reopen in stages on April 26 and May 17 but for many businesses reliant on office workers returning to the city centre they may decide not to take the risk.

Mainly that is because the Scottish Government has offered a vague proposal that from the end of June there will be ‘a phased return of some office staff’. City centre businesses need to have something firmer than that with which to plan.

I have been told by senior politicians and officials that we must expect a radical shift in the future role of offices. Home working will reduce business demand for office space – and businesses in hospitality, retail and personal services that depend on office worker footfall will have to rethink their strategy.

To be fair that is also a message I had been hearing from many in the business community, but a recent KPMG survey suggests leadership opinionmay be more fluid than we think.

The 2021 KPMG CEO Outlook Pulse Survey captured a substantial shift in leaders’ plans for office space.

The survey asked 500 CEOs of the world’s most influential companies what the ‘new reality’ will look like after the crisis has passed and the research found that only 17% are now planning to reduce their office space compared to 69% last August.

Granted, some may have already made the changes if lease breaks allowed, but the survey also showed that only a fifth are looking to hire talent that works mostly remotely – down from 73% in 2020.

Business appetite for home working may be in steep decline so we should not assume that it does not matter how quickly we allow office workers back into the city. We are anxious to see a more detailed plan.

At the local level there has been a welcome recognition by Glasgow City Council – and especially by Council Leader Susan Aitken – that action is needed to reboot our city centre.

Councillor Aitken well understands how many jobs are dependent on a thriving central hub and with guidance from her Glasgow Economic Recovery Group she set up a City Centre Taskforce in the autumn when it became quite clear that the summer reopening was not going to last.

That taskforce, which I co-chair with councillor Angus Millar, is tackling a list of immediate challenges to encourage Glaswegians back into the city centre when the reopening begins whilst also exploring what it will take to attract investment in its reshaping in the years ahead.

Let’s now hear how our political leaders intend to help.

This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 31 March 2021

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