“City leadership is one of the best jobs in politics because you can’t walk away, there are services to provide, the job is constantly problem solving, and keeping the city standing when crisis hits”
“In difficult and challenging times, leadership is what is needed, and that’s what we will provide today”
“Leadership can take us far, community will always take us further”
These were among the opening statements from Greg Clark and Susan Aitken at the 24th State of the City Economy Conference – #SOCE2022. Each year, Glasgow City Council gathers hundreds of delegates from a range of actors representing civic and commercial interests in the city, to outline and celebrate the year’s greenwashing efforts, misuse of public funds to subsidise private interests, and other strides toward their deluded and increasingly dystopian vision for our city. Last year, the conference was held at the Radisson Blu hotel on Argyle Street, just across the river from the new Barclays ‘campus’ that at least £12 million of public money was used to help develop in 2021.
The ongoing privatisation of Glasgow’s clydeside was once again celebrated as an economically gainful measure in the city’s development. To us, it represents a near perfect example of the ‘three Gs’ we have come to expect from Glasgow City Council’s economic policies: the Greenwashing of city planning, the Gentrification of public land and space, and the Gatekeeping of funds for private subsidies and investments over public services. Whether written or in person, Glasgow City Council communication is carefully scripted to paint a picture of a city governed by reasonable and representative leadership. But scrape beneath that veneer and you’ll find a very different picture of a council in chaos, and leadership whose best and only solution to crisis is selling out the city’s economy #SOCE.
In an idiosyncratic measure of hollow, performative and digitally exclusive ‘participation’, the Council utilised an online platform so that members of the audience could submit questions to a shared Q+A forum. The questions being submitted swiftly demonstrated the chasm between the reasonable priorities of those asking the questions, and fantasies of the ‘leaders’ tasked with answering them. We have included an (anonymised) selection of these contributions here to show how the people of Glasgow – even the attendees of the Council’s annual celebration of capitalism – attempted to hold our leadership to account in the face of the ‘three Gs’.
Greenwashing Glasgow’s way out of the climate crisis
Just over a year since Glasgow hosted the COP26 Conference, and shortly following the COP27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh at which Susan Aitkin was an attendee, she felt confident in letting us know that Glasgow is now seen as a world leading city in tackling climate change, and that we ‘created a momentum with COP26 that we can’t afford to let slip’. We were assured that the climate emergency had been ‘firmly established as one of the grand challenges for our economic strategies to address’. With the energy of somebody executing a perfect dive into an empty swimming pool, she then went on to lay out the council’s plans to worm their way out of the climate crisis by (wait for it) …attracting private investments.
Glasgow’s Greenprint for Investment, which we have challenged in our report Glasgow’s Greenwash, is a portfolio outlining eleven major development projects in Glasgow that are ‘open to private investment’. We have argued that the Greenprint is a greenwashed continuation of regional development strategies that have been typical in the neoliberal era in Scotland and the UK; prioritising subsidies and incentives to attract ‘inward investment’ to the city and developing infrastructure in partnership with, and based around the needs of, private capital. Susan Aitkin boasted that she had met with ‘institutional investors’ who were ready to spend trillions, as well as insurance professionals who would work with the council to get the Greenprint ‘investment ready’.
Since many of the projects included in the Greenprint portfolio should be considered essential public infrastructure (such as the Glasgow Metro and the Glasgow District Heating Network), this raises vital questions about the democratic accountability attached to such projects, and of the long-term costs to the public purse, given that that the cost of delivering public infrastructure through private rather than public finance is exorbitant, with long-term borrowing from the UK Public Works Loans Board remaining around 2–3% in debt interest, compared to rates of between about 4–8% in the private sector.
But of course, it’s not just about the financial costs. Each of these conferences marks another year’s worth of wasted time on the road to real zero carbon and true climate justice. Why are we patting ourselves on the back for the title of the UK’s second greenest city to invest in, at the expense of becoming the greenest city to live in? Whatever momentum we apparently gained from the failed COP26 conference, it should not be harnessed to set this kind of example. We need to scrap the ‘net-zero’ rhetoric, abandon the notion that the billionaires will save us, and get real about the work that we, and cities around the world, need to do.
Gentrification of public land and space
We were informed that there are over 400 ‘obsolete’ buildings in Glasgow. Whether these are buildings owned by Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life or another ALEO, was unclear. The Council has created a task force to ‘repurpose these buildings back into productive use’, so presumably the Council operates at least a modicum of control over the fate of such spaces. The immediate concern is that this number may include buildings that pre-Covid, hosted venues and services operated by Glasgow life, but even without confirmation of this, it is the nature of that fate that concerns us. Will these 400 buildings be revitalised into facilities that benefit their local communities? Or will they be repurposed as yet more profit-driven spaces to encourage outside commercial interests?
One building that illustrates this journey perfectly is that of Glasgow’s Met Tower. Originally conceived and built as a place of learning, a home for the College of Building and Printing for City of Glasgow College, the 14-storey city-centre building was vacated in 2014 and left empty and obsolete for the next 8 years. As if to compensate for the wastage of central public space, the Council chose the Met Tower as the site for their iconic ‘People Make Glasgow’ signage, looking over George Square and to the Clyde beyond. The news came earlier this year that the Met Tower has been privately purchased by Bruntwood Sci-Tech, a Mancunian office-space rental agency. The group has claimed the space will be used to benefit Glasgow’s scientific, technical and entrepreneurial communities (A wise and reasonable decision from the city’s leaders – as we all know, Glasgow’s scientific, technical and entrepreneurial communities felt the sharpest edge of the pandemic, and are in far more desperate need of central public space than, say, the Council itself or the ALEOs with whom it entrusts the operation of vital public services). The revitalisation of a space that once offered scholars the opportunity for education and development could, and should have offered more than an opportunity to funnel private profits out of the city. But while it is unclear whether the ‘People Make Glasgow’ signage will remain, it is clear that for those people, the doors will remain firmly closed.
Film and television generated almost £250,000 to Glasgow’s economy last year, Susan Aitkin told us. In an effort to build on the obvious success and public delight at Glasgow’s city centre being disrupted for the filming of the (since scrapped) Batgirl movie last year, the Council has continued this strategy by ‘repurposing’ part of the Kelvin Hall – a venue partially operated by Glasgow Life – into commercial studio space. The Kelvin Hall is in the minority of Glasgow Council / Glasgow Life facilities that was prioritised for reopening following the easing of lockdown restrictions in the city. The space hosts a Glasgow Club leisure facility, multi-purpose spaces for hire and stores for Glasgow Museums collections, as well as hosting collections from National Library of Scotland and The Hunterian. The repurposing of this space to incorporate a 10,500 sq foot commercial studio diverts resources from these services and Glasgow Life’s ability to run them. Will the profits gained from the commercialisation of the Kelvin Hall be used to sustain and supplement the public services operating in the space?
Gatekeeping of funds for private investments
Susan Aitkin described for us the ‘gold nuggets’ of economic growth throughout the city. One disturbing example that was selected as evidence of this was the BAE systems compound in Govan, who have secured a contract to build a further 5 frigats on the Clyde. While the use of any arms company responsible for perpetuating global oppressive forces seems like a dystopian choice to celebrate the city’s accomplishments, BAE systems provide logistics and strategic weapons systems for British, American and French nuclear weapons programmes, an industry which SNP-led Glasgow City Council should be rejecting in all the ways it has the power to do. Although, when you consider the extractive and oppressive forces that operate the gold mining industry, the ‘gold nuggets’ analogy feels far more appropriate.
The council has used its own funding and resources to develop the Glasgow Tech Ecosystem Platform in collaboration with DealRoom. The platform, which launched on the morning of the conference, is designed to provide better connectivity between tech-based companies and startups, and investors, universities, co-working spaces and other institutions in the city. With over 740 companies initially signed up, representing a total city-wide portfolio of £2.6bn in revenue, the platform promises to ‘provide a detailed picture of the evolving tech ecosystem in all its facets; and ‘promote the Glasgow Metropolitan Area internationally as a promising emerging hub for tech and innovation’.
Nicknamed ‘tech-tinder’ by Susan Aitkin, the platform is the first of its kind in the UK. Susan neglected to mention the exact cost that the Council bore to co-create this platform, which is designed to generate zero revenue to be returned to the local authority or public purse. Precisely what benefit at all this venture is supposed to bring to the people of Glasgow who have funded it, is unknown. The use of public funds to co-create this platform is emblematic of the neoliberal direction of economic policy this (and previous) Council administrations have been pursuing. A demonstrably faulty and ineffective ‘trickle-down’ strategy is used to justify the misappropriation of collectively generated resources to supplement, or even simply attract, opportunities for private economic growth. On top of this gatekeeping of funds, the lack of transparency around the costs the city will bear shines a light on the gatekeeping of information – a hallmark of a failed leadership, and a failed democracy.
The misuse of public funds for ventures that bypass or actively worsen conditions for the people of Glasgow and beyond is made all the more insulting in the context of the rhetoric that accompanies their announcements. Susan Aitkin tells us that the ‘complexity of our economy is one of our cities best strengths and builds its own resilience’ – as though she does not sit at the helm of the 5th most indebted city Council in the UK. She claimed during her opening address that “You know my views on the fundamental necessity of strong public services”. This comes nothing short of laughable for anyone who has been following the Glasgow Against Closures campaign over the past 18 months, or indeed, anyone paying attention during the conference, which contained precisely zero mentions or commitments to any activity that may preserve or enhance our failing public services. Our leaders apparently see no conflict between describing Glasgow’s business sector as ‘functioning like a real community’, and highlighting ‘competitiveness’ as a key long term driver of success.
In light of the staggering contradictions encased in the day’s rhetoric, we can feel justified in identifying a fourth crime in the delivery of the three G’s: Gaslighting. From carbon intensive projects being paraded for ‘green’ investment, to the commercialisation of a public space’s ‘productive use’, to private subsidisation being touted as ‘beneficial’ to the public purse, our leadership is painting a picture of their economic strategy that feels very different to the lived realities of its delivery. Is it any wonder that democratic engagement in the city is so low, with a Council that so consistently and calculatedly fails to live up to its own values? The people of Glasgow have watched, felt, and suffered, as our city’s economic strategy has snatched public funds from public hands, willfully ignoring the breakdown of public services in order to shake hands with the likes of BAE and Barclays. This strategy of gaslighting is not likely to win the Council back any trust, which begs the question as to whether that is even a fleeting priority of theirs. The more outside investment the city attracts, the less accountable the Council needs to be to the people who live here, in favour of appeasing corporate interests. Our local democracy is set on a dangerous course, one that we must fight to resist before they’ve completed Selling Out the City’s Economy #SOCE