Covid: Scottish and UK Government ‘half-hearted’ attitude to city centre business woes

GLASGOW Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive says there has been a “half-heartedness” in the response of both the Scottish and UK governments to the huge effect on city centres of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stuart Patrick, in an exclusive interview with The Herald, also hammered home his belief that there was a lack of understanding of the challenges facing airports as a result of the coronavirus crisis, as he highlighted how hard Glasgow had been hit as a city.

Mr Patrick said: “I think the underlying message is city centres have taken the absolute brunt of Covid. We kind of know that. Only London has taken a worse hammering [than Glasgow].”

Citing figures for footfall in city centres in late November as a percentage of the pre-pandemic levels in February 2020, he added: “The stats pre-Omicron were dismal – post-COP 26 we were right down to second-bottom place – [around] 60% footfall return, [with] Manchester, Leeds in the 70s, London in the 50s and creeping up.”

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Mr Patrick flagged his belief that the COP 26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, staged in Glasgow in early November, had been “disastrous” for the city centre.

Voicing his view that the transport challenges associated with the conference had been overestimated and highlighting the consequent lack of footfall in the city centre amid messaging about travel disruption and the potential for protests, he added: “COP slaughtered independent city-centre operators.”

Mr Patrick highlighted his belief that the stance of Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland had ultimately contrasted with that of the other partners in COP26 planning, all of which had been keen to do everything they could to maximise city-centre activity.

He added: “There was not really a real appreciation of how much the city centre had suffered over the last couple of years. Now we are back into Omicron.”

Mr Patrick emphasised the challenges facing the city centre were “bigger…than I would have thought at this time last year”.

Weighing the position earlier this month, he added: “I would not have expected to be talking about less than one in 10 office workers in Glasgow…being in the office.

“You start to think – so your city centre is beginning to waver. It looks a bit more ragged round the edges – more and more doors are not opening.”

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Mr Patrick emphasised his belief that there must be a focus from the Scottish and UK governments on city-centre revival.

In a Glasgow context, he highlighted his view that funding must be made available for key economic development projects such as the proposed major extension to the Scottish Event Campus, describing this as an “absolute diamond” of an investment opportunity.

He emphasised his view, in the face of some people questioning the future of international conferences amid the pandemic, that COP26 had shown the importance of people getting together to deal with complex issues and form relationships.

Noting the value of the SEC to tourism operators in Glasgow, Mr Patrick said: “The hotel sector can bank on the SEC as a steady source of business, month in, month out.”

He also flagged the importance to the city of rebuilding connectivity from Glasgow Airport.

Mr Patrick said: “I get a sense of half-heartedness about the way in which both governments…have not put their full weight behind understanding what is happening to our city centres, to our airports.”

He added: “We have…no US routes [from Glasgow Airport]…We have no guarantee of routes in 2022.”

Citing US financial groups JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley and Massachusetts-based scientific instruments company Thermo Fisher as examples, Mr Patrick said: “It won’t take long to come up with a list of American investors in the west of Scotland.”

He highlighted the importance of policy-makers realising “the vital importance of the connection between the airport and where investment goes”.

Mr Patrick also flagged the need to attract more independent businesses into the city centre, noting the significant numbers which had closed their doors during the pandemic.

He underlined his view that business rates reform was crucial in this context, noting high rateable values for properties in the city centre relative to those elsewhere.

Mr Patrick said: “I am looking round saying our city centre will come out of all this with a whole set of businesses in hospitality, leisure and retail…gone. It may be you will have a whole set of new people coming in to take their place but they won’t take their place in [the] city centre as an easy choice when you look at the rateable value.”

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He also flagged the potential longer-term impact on Glasgow and the surrounding area of a two-year period in which it had been “really painful” for entrepreneurs to set up and run a business in certain sectors.

Mr Patrick said: “If they [policy-makers] seriously think the city centre is going to become more residential, we are going to have to think about how we make the city centre more rounded.”

And he declared: “I don’t yet buy all the arguments about working from home being the permanent way of the future.”

However, he also expressed concern that home working could be adopted widely as a permanent feature among public sector organisations, noting this would weigh heavily on city-centre footfall.

Mr Patrick cited the potential to create more innovation space, and wet and dry labs in Glasgow.

He also flagged likely continuing demand for collaborative working space in the city centre.

And he highlighted his view that innovation districts in and around the city driven by Strathclyde University and the University of Glasgow remained crucial to future economic prosperity.

He flagged the strength of demand for grade A office space in Glasgow, and the success of recent developments including 177 Bothwell Street.

However, Mr Patrick highlighted major challenges in converting older properties in the city centre which had been offices for residential use.

He noted projects involving demolition and the building of new housing in the city centre.

However, Mr Patrick highlighted the expense of retrofitting old townhouse buildings and Victorian red sandstone properties used previously as office buildings to meet requirements in the drive to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the context of any future conversion to residential use. He declared such projects “don’t stack up without interventions”.

Mr Patrick also flagged the need for a “more flexible” planning regime in terms of the future uses of buildings.

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