Championing the recovery of Glasgow City Centre has become a severe test of resilience and now, even the progress made depends on the effectiveness of the UK Government’s intervention to control the impact on both households and, crucially, businesses of dizzying increases in energy prices.
Sauchiehall Street is the most visible consequence with a string of empty units and no immediate alternative demand. Less obvious to the public is the growing stock of empty office space in those glorious sandstone buildings in our traditional central business district. Digital technology may remain the fundamental driver of change in shopping habits and in the role of the office as we shift a greater share of our buying online and as employers adjust to more flexible working practices.
The most recent data from Glasgow’s City Centre Taskforce shows that weekend and evening footfall in July reached 98% and 93% of pre Covid-19 levels respectively and city centre spending had reached 120% compared to the same month in 2019. Weekday recovery was less impressive with only 72% of pre-Covid footfall returning, showing the impact that the new pattern of home working is having on city centre life.
That progress has been made despite the obstacles city centre users have been forced to overcome. Restricted train schedules limiting late night services or industrial action undermining service reliability, alongside a dramatic reduction in the availability of taxi drivers, is not making it easy to get in and out of the centre in the evenings. Avoiding an extended cleansing strike is a mercy. It took only one week to show how much rubbish the City Council must clear every day to keep our streets clean.
A recent article by Richard Florida, Professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and author of ‘The New Urban Crisis’ makes a strong case that city centres are not dying. The role of the office may be receding – and in the majority of top ten US cities less than 50% of office workers have returned – but as he states ‘great downtowns are not reducible to offices’. They are the ‘most adaptive and resilient of human creations: they have survived far worse’.
As the role of the office declines, the city centre is reverting to the greater mix of uses that was more prevalent historically, with more investment in housing and a rising demand for social space. Florida quotes 2021 data from the Gensler Research Institute showing US citizens agree that restaurants, cafes, bars, shopping districts, theatres and performing spaces are all much more important to their city centres than office buildings. So much so that Florida suggests evolving the term ‘central business district’ into ‘central connectivity districts – essential platforms where people socialize, cooperate and collaborate’.
The evidence in Glasgow tends to support Florida’s thesis. The spend data for July shows how the recovery in consumer spending is being led by food and drink. While fashion retail spend is only slightly ahead of its performance in July 2019 and general retail including department stores is still well behind, food and drink spending is a full 60% ahead of the July 2019 figures. Spending on entertainment in July was almost 20% ahead. Glaswegians are indeed increasingly using their city centre to socialise.
But for that to be sustained quite clearly the bars and restaurants, theatres and clubs need to be there in the first place. How many of those businesses will survive a winter – or possibly two – with energy bills as much as four or five times the level they were this time last year? Business may be recovering but there will be few venues that can absorb a four-fold increase in their heating costs.
The decisions the new Prime Minister and Chancellor make on dealing with the energy crisis will be as important for the resurgence of our city centre as they will for their own political futures.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 7 September 2022