2007 - 2022

Where is the vision for Scotland’s First City: Glasgow?

Glasgow is Scotland’s first city in size and importance. There are of course several different Glasgows – from the official council area of 621,020 inhabitants to the metropolitan region of between 1.2 million to 1.7 million people, depending on the definition.

Glasgow matters. It’s success, wellbeing, vibrancy, the happiness of its people, sustainability, and state of its public realm all matter not just to the city, but to all of Scotland.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that to many Glaswegians. The past weekend saw GMB Scotland trade union boss Gary Smith talk of the city in fairly black and white terms. Smith called the city ‘filthy’ and ‘unkempt’, suffering from an ‘epidemic’ of rats, and claimed that it had lost its way and was in economic and political decline.

Smith’s apocalyptic language unexpectedly brought forth much heat and some light. Some took exception to his stark language, while others took aim at his Labour Party credentials, and many saw the whole episode through either pro- or anti-SNP eyes. Some agreed with him passionately. One person said on Facebook: ‘It is filthy. There is noticeably more litter in the streets, with many bins spilling over unemptied.’ An East End resident took the opposite view stating: ‘I live beside one of the poorest areas in Glasgow. Personally [I] don’t see the litter or the rats or anyone talking in those terms.’ A more nuanced voice asked “filthy compared to what?’, while a trade union activist pointed out that ‘Cuts, pure and simple. Doesn’t matter who makes the cuts, they are cuts.’

All of this begs a number of questions including what Glasgow are we talking about, what city are we directly experiencing and what city are we choosing not to see, and how can we have a debate which gets past party divisions and official accounts? Critically related to this is how and where we can have political conversations about power, leadership and the future which don’t just descend down the Alice in Wonderland hole of pretending everything is either good or bad in SNP Scotland. This approach ultimately will do little to serve the citizens of Glasgow – or of the nation.

Smith said that Glasgow is in economic and political decline. The first assertion is emphatically untrue on any measurement. Glasgow has experienced over a decade of economic growth, has employment at record levels, and has succeeded over that period in attracting significant numbers of jobs and investment. This does not mean that everything in the city is alright, or to buy into the conventional economic model of Scottish Enterprise and other public bodies. Many of the jobs that have been created are part-time and pay wages that prevent many Glaswegians from being able to manage without the additional support of benefits or other assistance. But we cannot talk about declinism as if it is the only show in town when it just is not the case.

Second, the charge of political decline is a more difficult one to assess. This seems on the surface to be hankering after the golden age of Labour one-party rule that only ended at City Council level in 2017. But there is also a wider dimension of Glasgow’s place and position in a devolved Scotland. Power has become increasingly centralised in the Scottish Government – a process begun 20 years ago by Labour and the Lib Dems in the then Executive, and continued and accelerated by the SNP over the last decade.

One problem in this is agreeing what counts as success. This is a city that Stuart Patrick, CEO of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce believes has much to be proud of – ‘Glasgow has been benefitting from a rebirth of the inner city; employment has been growing well, the business base is expanding and the city’s economic base has been diversifying. Population is growing too.’

But it is also a city where, as Peter Kelly, head of the Poverty Alliance, observes
‘one-third of Glasgow’s children [are] growing up in poverty’s grip … Glasgow is a city that believes in justice, compassion and solidarity, yet too often these beliefs don’t translate into action.’ These two cities often sit side by side, oblivious to each other’s existence – the reality of cities the world over – but in Glasgow it feels acute, such is the scale of wealth and poverty.

The city does face political challenges. The SNP ended Labour’s fifty-year dominance of Glasgow in May 2017, becoming a minority council under the leadership of Susan Aitken. It has not been a smooth ride over the past two years with the council having to face the problem of the long running equal pay claim by thousands of council workers, which they settled. If that were not enough the SNP have had to attempt to administer a council where numerous council officials had grown comfortable and identified with Labour over its long reign.

This is compounded by issues of governance, the balance between the city and city region, financial pressures, and ten years of cuts and constraints on local government – which Gary Smith accurately described in the following terms: ‘after a decade of cuts, we’re saying the city just cannot take anymore.’

The Missing Glasgows: Strategies everywhere but Little Vision

There is a huge issue that informs all of this – the absence of an agreed vision of the city that Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government sign up to and champion. It is a paradox that the SNP decided decades ago to capture Glasgow City Council, and when it did it has struggled to find and set a strategic direction and purpose.

Over a decade ago the SNP formally agreed as part of an Electoral and Systems Review to adopt a ‘Glasgow Strategy’. This noted that the party did not historically have such a strategy and that its absence had cost it dear. The SNP had a Glasgow problem it argued in that, bar the odd parliamentary by-election, the Nationalists had a poor electoral track record in the city (and indeed in the wider West of Scotland). The paper recommended taking specific steps to address this, building a local and ward based strategy based on gaining clusters of wards to be able to challenge Labour at parliamentary level.

What is illuminating from 2019 is that while the SNP’s Glasgow strategy has paid ample electoral dividends – with the party dominant at council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster levels – the party has spent much less time thinking about what it would do for the city once it achieved electoral success.

One dimension of the city missing from conventional politics is about the quality of relationships, individual lives and shared spaces – and how we support and nurture them. Numerous spaces, buildings and infrastructures do feel uncared for, unloved and even neglected – from the number of potholes, to the scale of litter and rubbish, and legacy of numerous crumbling Victorian buildings – and this matters to how people feel about and see the city.

Anne Mullin, a Govan GP thinks that ‘Glasgow has the feel of East/West Berlin in places – definite geographic lines of ugly buildings (remnants of poor planning decisions and cheap architectural makeovers) and others places more blurred, mixed in with beautiful but dilapidated buildings that should be maintained and celebrated.’ This is a widespread problem about Scottish and British cities, but Glasgow does seem to have major challenges, reinforced by its council size excluding the suburbs and long term questions of financial viability.

Even more central is the issue of relationships people who live in the city have. Historically, Glasgow has witnessed too many violent, abusive and dysfunctional relationships, often underpinned by, and causing, excessive drinking and self-destructive behaviour. The case for the lasting damage this has done to people is made in Carol Craig’s ‘The Tears That Made the Clyde’; she thinks the first step in changing the city is coming to terms with the fact that ‘we are lacking honesty about the depth of the city’s problems with drink and drugs and the damage this does to lives and families’. The facilitator Verene Nicolas settled in Drumoyne on the Southside of Glasgow from France and thinks that there are deep disconnections in the city that ‘could be due to a collective trauma and state of woundedness suffered by the city and other parts of the West of Scotland.’

This is an illusive terrain for government and public services to address, but some pioneering bodies have ventured on to it such as the Violence Reduction Unit. They have worked extensively to challenge the behaviour of self-destructive individuals, predominantly men, who embody and exhibit a toxic masculinity which harms themselves, other men, women and children. All of this is far removed from traditional politics and necessitates a different kind of city.

A missing element in advancing popular change in the city is an kind of organisation or agency which citizens have created themselves, own and feel can give them a say over the direction and future of the city. This absence reinforces the wide democratic deficit which exists within Glasgow – which regularly has the lowest electoral turnouts in Scotland and often at UK elections. The council are organising a Citizens’ Assembly in the totemic People’s Palace about its future, but participative processes need to be expanded beyond the management of cuts.

Last year when the Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Building burnt down for the second time in four years a public debate about the city broke into the open. It touched on concerns which had been festering for years about the direction of the city, dominant official versions of the council and other public bodies, and how numerous communities had not felt listened to or respected for years.

This could have been the beginning of an important debate which galvinised change and was a cathartic, watershed moment after decades of Labour rule. Instead, the moment was lost as the debate was closed down and people went back into their bunkers. Some of this was understandable. The new council leadership were faced with a host of unexpected problems to manage: the closing of parts of Sauchiehall Street, a host of businesses and households decanted, and a Glasgow School of Art which seemed at times unco-operative. These sentiments showed that significant parts of the city are yearning for an open, honest and constructive discussion about the state of Glasgow and its future.

Glasgow needs a 21st century vision: one which isn’t the creation of the council or institutional opinion. This would ideally have new governance linking up the core city and suburbs, a new financial settlement which reflects this, and a new partnership between citizens, council and the Scottish Government.

Integral to this is listening and engaging with people in more than periodic elections and ending the corrosive advance of centralisation which has defined devolution. A people’s story of Glasgow would more than likely be one which was more human and humane than the present official story. It would be about how the people of the city looked after and out for one another, it would put the relationships and way we care for each other and challenge unacceptable behaviour at its centre, and it would be one which recognised how we too often let down those who most need support. And it would build on the best which already exists in the city: the work of the VRU, the Poverty and Truth Commission, and numerous community-led projects such as Galgael, Govanhill Baths and Glasgow Women’s Library amongst many others which make a real difference.

The current Glasgow is a reflection of the limits of conventional politics and economics – whether Labour or SNP. A people’s Glasgow would have at its centre a version of the economy, society and the public realm which would represent a very different Glasgow and a very different politics to the present. ‘People Make Glasgow’ says the branding message. Wouldn’t it be great if we could adopt that as our clarion call and vision for a 21st century Glasgow?


Comments (17)

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  1. Hamish Kirk says:

    Look at public transport. Dysfunctional at all levels. A city where the planners built motorways heading into the city. A subway system that only serves a small part of the centre. Two stations with no prospect of a “Union Station” An airport with no adequate public transport links. A myriad of private bus operators in competition.

  2. Fay Kennedy says:

    Interesting article Gerry. It’s a tragedy on so many levels. A place that stays with you for better or worse and makes at times the best of men and women but oh such waste goes with it too.

  3. Graeme McCormick says:

    The root of Glasgow’s problems is the same as every other community but on a much greater scale, failure to steward the land. It doesn’t matter if it is in the public or private sector ownership the dilapidated or empty buildings and a thousand hectares of unkempt land all reduce the contribution to the public purse and blight the environment of all who see or live amongst it.

    Introduce an Annual Ground Rent on both public and private property and that will force the owners to use the land or give it away to others who can and will pay the AGR on it.

    From stewardship of the land comes improved environment, well being, increased jobs and economic activity

    1. Walter McLean says:

      Spot on, a Land Tax is what is needed . The tax system at the moment is a disincentive & too few people have too much land & in a lot of cases doing nothing with it.

  4. Josef Ó Luain says:

    That “The current Glasgow is a reflection of the limits of conventional politics and economics” seems obvious enough, but Glasgow, unfortunately, can’t be viewed in isolation of its political and economic U.K. context. Isn’t that why many of us wan’t to exit that political and economic context a.s.a.p.? Those who haven’t witnessed and been shocked by the presence of rats and cockroaches or taken a stroll through the FM’s constituency i.e. the majority of Scots, will, most likely wonder what all-the-fuss is about Glasgow.

  5. Isabel Allison says:

    An interesting article. I know there are enormous financial constraints on the city but finding a solution for homeless people should be a priority.
    I am originally from Glasgow and love the city. However, when I was there on Saturday night I felt uncomfortable and disappointed with an intimidating atmosphere of aggressive drunks. As I previously said, I am aware of budget cuts and financing equal pay deficits but councillors need to be aware of the essence which makes Glasgow great – the people. Ensuring there is a safe and secure environment in the city centre is essential to maintain this reputation.

  6. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Like most articles by Mr Hassan, my reaction is a mix of head-nodding agreement and then irritation at the places where he indicates a solution then promptly comes up with a ‘We’re all DOOMED!’ section.

    When I read the ‘apocalyptic’ comments from Mr GarySmith, what came to mind was Billy Connolly’s joke, “Hangin’s too good for him. It’s a good kick in the arse he needs.” Mr Smith’s comments were the kind of comments which the media lap up and splash across their front pages – everything is polarised, black and white.

    Glasgow has always been a city of contrasts, as most cities are. Cities are dynamic creative places and the history of Glasgow illustrates better than many the continuous change which takes place, with genuine affluence and splendour and other areas of dereliction. Glasgow has reinvented itself many times and is reinventing itself now.

    I am not a member of the SNP or any political party, but, the change of administration two years ago has blown a gust of cleansing wind through the Council. As Mr Hassan indicates, changing a culture, particularly at officer level, which had been used to an increasingly sclerotic administration over 70 years (nearly all my lifetime), is difficult. It takes time. In my role as a volunteer I have come into contact with many councillors and officers and I think that mostly they are well-intentioned and principled people, who are keen to do a good job and, on the whole do pretty well given the constraints and the cultural barriers. I get a sense of change. Because there is no longer a majority administration, Councillors are having to make alliances across parties. With the significant numbers of retirals of long serving Labour councillors, there has been a substantial change in the attitude of the group, with a greater willingness to make deals. There has also been a restructuring of the departmental structure to seek to break the ‘silo’ mentality which bedevils big organisations, public, private and third sector. All of these are positive signs, but, having been engaged during my working career with enabling cultural change, changing structures is only the start, changing the attitudes takes longer, not least because the old fixed markers have been removed and people have to be creative and engage in ‘risk taking’.

    Creative risk taking is, on the whole, a good thing, because it is the actual act of change, and usually these changes are small and tentative and, being risky, sometimes go wrong. However, in my experience, releasing people’s creativity, in the medium and longer term produces change for the better.

    Mr Hassan has listed a number of organisations in Glasgow who are working at the community level to bring change in aspects of the life of Glasgow. Happily, the new administration seems much more prepared to engage with such groups and to seek ways of empowering them. I agree with Mr Hassan that it is groups like these in alliance with the statutory bodies such as GCC, who will make the “people Make Glasgow” slogan more than a slogan. We, as citizens, have to learn how to take part in a participative democracy , and we also need to be EMPOWERED. The idea of empowerment and responsibility often frightens people, particularly with broadcast and print media who want to BLAME, BLAME and BLAME again. However, empowerment of groups, with transparent accountability is exilherating – even if it is only creating a garden for the local primary school.

    The Community Empowerment Act was passed in 2015 and there have only been a few toes dipped in the water, but the transformative potential (coupled with land reform) is immense. We have a body of experience with the various community buy outs and other small projects across Scotland.

    Undoubtedly, we need devolution to move more significantly beyond Holyrood to Councils and from these to communities within Council areas. If this is the kind of debate which Mr Hassan is trying to stimulate then count me in.

    “Institutional inertia” is a factor which has to be taken into account. We need to have our rubbish cleared, we need our schools, we need our NHS, we need policing, etc. I do not mean ‘inertia’ in a derogatory sense (I have a degree in physics and I use it in the sense that it is used there, which is often associated with very large objects). Such things can be difficult to change because all of us recognise how much our lives depend on them, but they require to change continually, to adapt to changing circumstances – retain the good but change what we need to change and, because something has to change it does not mean it is someone’s FAULT and that someone has to be BLAMED.

    As Chairman Mao wrote, “A journey of 3000 miles starts with a single step”.

    1. Willie says:

      The dead hand of corrupt council officialdom is the elephant in the room that no one wants to address.

      Unless the SNP who are now in control in places like Glasgow and neighbouring councils get a grip on corruption then it will only be a matter of time before they become the same as the Labour Party before them.

      Jobs for the boys, corrupt procurement awards, topped up exit pensions for those caught, it’s all there in Glasgow and environs. C’mon SNP show us you’re not the same a Labour. That’s why you’re there! Don’t let us down.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:


        What evidence do you have for corruption in the present GCC?

        I am not so wet behind the ears that I do not accept that over the years there have been instances of corruption as there is, eventually, in all large organisations, public and private. But, with greater transparency and improved public engagement these things can be made more difficult, but never eliminated.

        Secondly, corruption can take different forms. There is the crass criminality of taking backhanders for contracts. But there is also the ‘jobs for the boys’ aspect, which has been far more common. It was this that led to the venal alliance between some Councillors, some officials and the public service trade unions to discriminate against women employees in terms of wage rates. This dragged on for years and, sadly, some women died before receiving what was due to them. The hypocrisy of the trade union in organising a demonstration against the current council, which was committed to resolving – and did resolve – the iniquity was breathtaking in its barefaced arrogance. This has cost the citizens dearly in terms of services and, might, probably cost more in future years.

        Mr Hassan begins by quoting Mr Gary Smith blackguarding the Council. His union was one which resulted in Glasgow facing costs over and above those arising from Westminster austerity. I am a lifelong trade unionist and have participated in actions over the years and it pains me to see that they can be as corrupt as, say, RBS.

        While continuing to be vigilant against corruption, we have to try to transcend these historic misdeeds, and try to build a better community.

        PS with regard to litter, Glasgow is actually a lot tidier than it has ever been in my 70+ years. There are still blackspots, but, in the course of my voluntary work, I participate weekly in clean ups around the city and I have seen great improvements.

      2. james cormack says:

        I agree totally. Fraud and corruption in local government is one of the biggest issues we have in Scotland yet it seems to be
        swept under the carpet. It is, apart from being morally wrong, completely wasteful. Some of the activities of some officials
        in local government are an absolute disgrace and it is high time that the government cracked down on it.

    2. Jo says:

      Bravo Alasdair!

      While Party-politics isn’t helpful sometimes I found Gary Smith’s remarks unbelievably hypocritical. I’m old enough to know when equal pay legislation was passed. I don’t recall the GMB, or Mr Smith, putting pressure on or threatening strike action against successive Labour administrations in Glasgow who wouldn’t budge on the issue and flouted the law for years!

      As someone who worked in Glasgow for decades myself I’ve always felt the city’s biggest flaw was its love affair with the car. It has destroyed the city. Oh for some bold ideas and some imagination! Me? I’d impose a complete ban on private traffic within two miles of the city centre. I’d build car parks around the boundary and set up bus links going back and forwards. The car has ruled in Glasgow for too long.

      Public transport in general needs to be looked at in general to link communities up. It is scandalous, for example, that communities like Castlemilk have such an appalling service.

      You are right too about the Community Empowerment Act floating over the heads of some Councils. Not just Glasgow either.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:


        I think you are right about public transport, which, particularly with regard to buses, does not serve the city well. This is particularly galling when looking back at the history of public transport in the city, which under ERL Fitzpayne in the early part of the 20th century was copied by, amongst others New York City and Chicago. However, with the urban motorways of the 50a/60s much of that was wiped out and then further brutalised by deregulation in the 1980s.

        However, there is a ray of hope in that there is an opportunity in that First Bus are looking for a buyer and an emergency cross party motion proposed by Cllr Matt Kerr led to the Council deciding to look at the possibility of bringing the buses under local control as is the case in Edinburgh with Lothian Buses. Much of the impetus for this idea came from a local campaigning group “Get Glasgow Moving”, which comprises a very enthusiastic and articulate group of young people. I think this is an example of the kind of interaction between citizens’ groups and the Council which might bring about change.

        I think Mr Hassan’s idea of a ‘vision’ is too nebulous a concept to bring about change, whereas dealing with a real issue, such as buses, which impacts on the lives of most citizens is the kind of thing that can demonstrate what is possible.

  7. Graeme Purves says:

    It would have been good to have had a few of the many policy initiatives which have sought to promote the renewal of Glasgow specifically referenced or, failing that, at least some evidence of an awareness of them. As it is, this article might too readily be dismissed as a piece of impressionistic and ephemeral journalism. That would be a pity. I agree about the need for Vision.

  8. John Walker says:

    A people’s Glasgow? Does that mean more traffic cones stuck on top of statues?

  9. Darby O'Gill says:

    Just thinking about Glasgow makes me sad. So much talent and so much potential wasted.

  10. florian albert says:

    Instead of debating Glasgow’s lack of the ‘vision thing’, we might be better to look at the ‘money thing.’ Since the collapse of industrial Glasgow, a new economic dispensation has been created. It is an extremely unequal one. There are parts of Glasgow which are extremely prosperous; the West End and parts of the South Side.
    Most of the rest is (comparatively) impoverished. (This also applies to Greater Glasgow; prosperous East Dumbartonshire and East Renfrewshire alongside poor relations such as Paisley and Clydebank.)

    There is no political will to change this. The prosperous areas might vote SLAB, Lib Dem or SNP but they do so secure in the knowledge that their prosperity is as secure as can be in these times. There is no appetite in prosperous areas for the creation of a ‘people’s Glasgow’ and, in the blighted areas, such an idea would meet with ridicule.

  11. james cormack says:

    As an SNP member for many decades in neighbouring Dumbarton (in many ways, a mini-Glasgow) I have to admit that I am disappointed with the record
    of Susan Aitken’s administration since they took over running Glasgow. Instead of following her own party’s stance and being fair and equal to all communities
    she has taken sides in the age-old blue/green divide and that is unforgiveable. If Celtic are given special fan zones then so should Rangers. There are many more examples but it is extremely immature of her to fall into the trap of shallow tribalism and believing that one side is discriminated against when clearly there is no evidence to back it up. This is not the early sixties. You represent tens of thousands of Rangers-supporting voters and taxpayers, many if not most of whom are not loyalist bigots. By the way, I dislike both sides of the Old Firm much of what they stand for but reluctantly admit that they still play a large part in Scottish social and cultural life.

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