COP26: Scotland’s pioneering tradition can help solve the climate crisis

When delegates convene for COP26 next week they will do so in a city that is still, despite the best efforts of planners and developers, defined by buildings more than a century old.

The Victorian and Edwardian eras bequeathed to modern Scotland a set of beautiful, green, highly liveable cities.

Some of this achievement may have been driven by ostentatious philanthropy, but behind this facade lay hard choices about how to tackle environmental and public health crises created by newly industrialised slum cities.

As Scotland seeks to shine on the world stage for the 12 days of the conference, it will struggle to demonstrate how it has managed to live up to this legacy.

The pioneering work of Glasgow Corporation transformed a 19th-century city with a modernising zeal: creating major publicly owned transport, communications and energy networks.

The tap water that COP delegates will drink is still the product of the Loch Katrine system: a project so vast and challenging that it seems impossible today. But in moments of crisis, true progress often involves a backward glance.

Glasgow, a Gaelic metropolis at its core, sings its songs better than most. But it falls far short of the world’s great radical cities, like Barcelona, because it has never had the bravery to match the confidence and levels of investment equivalent to its first great municipal expansion.

It may not be framed as such, but Glasgow City Council’s current plan to create “20-minute neighbourhoods” would, if successfully implemented, return much of the city to a pattern recognisable to the great-grandparents of present-day Glaswegians.

In contrast, responses to climate change are often portrayed as a breathless race for new innovation; but we must learn to frame them as a process of restoration too. Though the Scottish cities of a century ago may have been coal-fired, they now offer a blueprint for a green public realm for all that works for all.

But the patched-up infrastructure of Glasgow is still based on hardware laid down in the days of Empire, and this is part of what will turn the reality of hosting COP into a day-to-day grind. With mass industrial action on the cards too, some may feel that Glasgow’s past has come back to haunt it.

However, in the pressing battle to maintain a planet fit for life, rediscovering and reinterpreting the past has an important role to play. For many in the chronically impoverished global south, this process is about junking imported attitudes to the environment and returning local knowledge to its rightful dignity.

Wherever lasting solutions appear, they are premised on restoring power to those who know a place best. This is precisely the kind of fearless politics that the climate crisis calls for. We know that regimes imposed from above won’t cut it, but we don’t know if Scotland itself will be brave enough to take such radical steps.

Media scholar Michael Billig memorably noted that nationalism is often “banal”. A lot of what differentiates one country from another are those details that we take for granted, rather than those that are embedded in grand narratives about what marks out one person from another.

It was therefore unsurprising to see the UK Government announce a new heat and building strategy based around a technology that totally overlooks one of the key differences between Scotland and England – the nature of its housing stock and built environment.

Ground source heat pumps have limited applicability to tenements and flats in general: but the vast work of retrofitting and insulating will be absolutely vital to tackling the climate crisis. A fifth of our emissions come from building operations, and Scotland’s Climate Assembly has called for all buildings to be net-zero by 2030.

District heating schemes are common in many countries at a similar latitude to Scotland. The fact that British homes are still the coldest in Europe points clearly to the fact that we are an outlier: a country where the needs of landlords and developers always come first and where public solutions to housing and heating are frowned upon.

As housing expert Douglas Robertson recently pointed out – the first council scheme in Scotland, Logie in Dundee, was built with a district heating system back in 1920. When it comes to just outcomes, whether in social or environmental terms the public really does work. The private sector, on the other hand, equivocates and eyes the bottom line.

A critical part of understanding the necessary forms of action we now require is to accept that we have regressed. We have moved away from social housing en-masse thanks to a disastrous sell-off programme that has led to a spiralling housing crisis.

When it comes to connecting up those homes, we have privatised municipal networks laid down by previous generations for the benefit of all.

The rationale of the heat pump subsidy scheme shows that the UK Government believes climate justice can be layered onto this dysfunctional and unjust system.

But this can also be a cause for optimism: the great shift to privatisation is only a few decades old. There is a better society out there for the taking that could revive life everywhere, but it is simply not compatible with the relatively new habits of mass private car ownership, disposable consumer electronics and an obsession with homeownership.

Everywhere, vested interests are narrowing the window for preserving life to serve their own profits and protect their own assets.

Property development is the default repository for that excess capital. Thus despite the fact that construction is a significantly more costly endeavour in carbon terms than retrofiring, with the emissions in old buildings “locked-in”, we still operate a VAT system that incentivises new build.

DURING the SNP’s iconic “It’s Scotland Oil” campaign in 1974, the party asked: “why are so many Scots old folk cold and undernourished? Why do 5000 die of hypothermia every year?”.

That moral urgency often seems lacking today. While many Unionists decried the “selfishness” of the SNP’s highly successful 1974 slogan; the underlying message was about the absurdity of poverty in amidst new wealth and abundance. It foreshadowed the squandering of all that offshore wealth as the nation’s manufacturing base haemorrhaged jobs.

That oil underwrote mass employment has become the touchstone for that era of Scottish politics: but the often shocking state of the nation’s housing was equally central. Bad housing and fuel poverty have been Scotland’s shame for too long.

Soon, the flow of North Sea oil onshore may ebb, but the waters of Loch Katrine will continue to flow under the Trossachs regardless.

The wonders of that scheme were not created simply due to Victorian vim and vigour. Instead, they were a radical, public, response to an environmental crisis and terrifying new diseases brought about by industrial expansion.

There is so much to be done over the coming decade: the only realistic option we have is to look around us for tried and tested tools for change. If the Scottish Government is to live up to its stated ambition of being an exemplary host for COP26, it must accept the overwhelming evidence embodied in Scotland’s fine old cities: that the public works.

Help to support independent Scottish journalism by subscribing or donating today.



Comments (10)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. david says:

    yes, yes, we know

    Stop animal husbandry, problem solved.

    That is every one of us as individuals saves the planet by not eating meat or drinking dairy. No co-operation with capitalism or governments required.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      If only the problem could be so easily solved David. I’m afraid it’s likely to take a wee bit more than simply us all becoming vegans to get where we need to be, much as veganism could indeed contribute. And even getting THERE may not be so simple! Just try persuading near four millions adults to do anything!

      In my view, Christopher Silver has in this timely piece identified at least some of the issues we need to tackle. And naebody else can do it but the citizens of Glasgow and Scotland, who need to learn some of the lessons of history to start creating the new world now possible. I have only one wee quibble with Christopher, which is when he writes above ‘there is a better society out there for the taking’. I disagree only with his use of the last word in that phrase. It must instead be MAKING, as there is plenty we NEED TO CREATE ANEW.

      Alas, as at least some of our forebears learned the hard way, creating a new world requires a wee bit of effort!

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        I have to disagree, in part with Dougie Harrison. Mr Silver’s key point was that PUBLIC works in the COMMON good made Glasgow, especially, and other Scottish cities places where people could live on a human scale. This was largely driven and delivered municipally, with Glasgow Corporation being a world leading example in its time. Towards the end of the 19th and early 20th century, cities like New York and Chicago were developing city plans based explicitly on Glasgow’s example of public water and sewerage, a tramway system, municipally owned electricity and gas services, parks, school, public libraries, street lighting and lighting in closes, hospitals and public health services. Tenements – and I have always lived in tenements – are good ways of developing community and neighbourliness and the mutual help ethos. The late Bernard Aspinwall, who was a historian at Glasgow University (amongst others) documented this well.

        Of course Glasgow has had appalling social problems. Being born and brought up in Anderston in the 1940s and 50s I have experienced it. But, let us recognise the world leading aspects of Glasgow, and acknowledge that public works for the common good are what creates liveable cities. Some have called this ‘socialism’. I understand Mr Harrison once considered himself an adherent!

        1. Dougie Harrison says:

          Alasdair, we may be of roughly the same generation, as I was also born in the (later) 1940s.

          I’m not fighting with YOU pal. I just attempted to review, and express my opinions on, Christopher’s fine piece.

          My memory says I first believed myself to be a socialist about 1960, at the age of 13 or 14. Many things have of course changed since then. But my belief in, and lifetime working to help achieve, socialism, isnae one of them I have ever regretted. But I greatly respect those visionary non-socialists who caused Loch Katrine to provide the city in which I choose to remain with one of the world’s best water supplies.

          Sorry if my words caused you to disbelieve me pal. They certainly werenie intented to mislead anyone.

  2. Gerry Robertson says:

    As the Tories vote to allow untreated sewage to further pollute their already polluted waterways Boris is already playing down the possibility of any worthwhile agreement in case he has to start answering any awkward questions about what the English are doing to save the planet. I guess it must the Eu’s fault.

    1. John Learmonth says:

      The ‘English’ and ‘their’ Tory govt are doing more to de-carbonise their economy than pretty much any country on the planet. When the bills start coming in lets see if the ‘English’ are still keen to pay for it.
      In the meantime we have the absurd spectacle of thousands of people FLYING in to Glasgow staying in over priced hotels and been driven around in chauffeur driven cars along specially designated highways.
      Surely if all these people beleive that man made CO2 emmissions are the main driver of climate change they’d all be staying home?
      So either:
      1. They don’t beleive it and are coming on a 2 week taxpayer funded piss up (its called socialism)
      2. They’re all a bunch of hypocrites.
      Just imagine if global temperatures start going down in the next decade as Russian climatologists are predicting. I see trouble ahead…..

      1. Dougie Harrison says:

        John, if a two-week taxpayer-funded pissup is socialism… precisely WHY haven’t I had ONE in my 60+ years as a socialist? And a member of the COMMUNIST PAIRTY (if you’ve ever even heard of that?) for 22 of them forbye? (But if ye don’t know what being a Communist meant from the sixties tae the eighties, you’ll likely no ken whit ‘forbye’ means either?

        Ach, mibbe, I’ve just been the WRONG SORT of socialist? As everyone I have known (and I’ve known an affie lot of socialists in those years, including maistly ordinary working folk, and a few cooncillors, but rather fewer Lord Provosts, MPs, and mibbe even the odd Government meenister) has missed it too? I’m not aware that any of them ever had a ‘taxpayer-funded pissup’. Weel, mibbe the luckier one. Mibbe once each…

        Just whit did we ever dae wrang tae miss it John? You sound like the sort of person I – WE – should all have met decades ago? Who actually knows how tae achieve sic things?

        1. John Learmonth says:


          I’ve met countless Trade Unionists (some of them communists, although quite why you should align yourself with an ideology that caused the unnatural deaths of over 100 million human beings in the C20th is beyond me) many of whom spent their entire working lives pissed. You’ve missed out!

  3. Alistair Taylor says:

    Warning; ah’m joining the discussion.
    Ah’m 60, though could pass for 40 or 80, depending on the circumstances
    And either way, ah’ll soon be deid
    And huvnae even spread ma seed.

    Ah only skim read Mr Silver’s paper, but he’s obviously put a fair bit of effort intae it, so ah’d give him an A for even trying.
    But it’s all relative.

    I got a lower 2nd in Geology, with Zoology, from the University of Glasgow
    A “gentleman’s degree”
    And Prof Bowes once gave me a mark of 20% and a comment of “lacks rigour” for a field trip in the NW. And he was right.

    I needed a kick in the arse, and sometimes still do.
    My dad is 82, and his dad is deid.

    I’m with Dougie Harrison. I’m with Jack Collatin. I’m with the Woolwich.
    I’ll be with Art Hindmarsh down the Horseshoe Bar. The usual time.
    More or less.

    Just got back from Canada, and a hellish summer in BC.
    To see ma Da. First visit in two and a half years.
    Coincidentally, the CoP Jamboree.

    My pal Catherine from Ardrishaig is also a graduate of the great University of Glasgow. Established 1451, if memory serves correct.
    Though I stand to be corrected on that.

    She’s a dear friend. Studied Gaelic, English, and psychiatric nursing, among other things. She probably won’t be joining the discussion, as she’s too knackered from knocking her pan in wi’ the NHS, but I can tell you she’s no a fan of the CoP show, as cannae commute tae work from Paisley to Dumbarton Rd.

    Ach, tae be continued.
    But, in brief, in my opinion, the sooner Scotland wakes up and ditches the shackles of the Conservative party, the better.

    The sooner the world wakes up and ditches the shackles of the money men, the better.

    In the big picture, the Sun will burn out and life on Earth shall cease.

    But, (and there’s always a but).
    Ah cannae quite mind what I was going to say next….
    Oh aye,
    It’s getting light.
    I need tae get up and get tae work.

    See ya later

  4. Niemand says:

    Good article, funny comments

    I vaguely remember when local councils actually built houses to house people and not for profit. Do councils build houses any more, anywhere?

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.