Let Them Eat Cake – COP26 in Glasgow
In 2017, in the early days of the new SNP-led administration in Glasgow I attended what was called a summit in the lavish marble halls of the City Chambers. Hosted by Glasgow Life and Glasgow City Council, we were told it was an opportunity to hear from arts organisations across the city in order to establish Glasgow as a leading European cultural venue, up there with Barcelona and Berlin.
Much of this “consultation” was, in typical style, a presentation. We were told about how cool Glasgow was becoming, presented with facts and figures about sports events and conferences, Commonwealth Games and MOBO awards ceremonies.
The consultation part of the day consisted of us having a discussion among ourselves at each table about what could be done to improve the city. Each table had a facilitator from Glasgow Life who would later relate what we decided to the room. As we went along we were encouraged to stick post-it notes of our thoughts on to a big board that would, no doubt, be discarded later. This is where it gets problematic. At our table we discussed three very real problems.
Our first point was bins. The people at our table were collectively very well-travelled when it came to European cities. One thing we all instantly agreed on was that the sight of overflowing street bins, still overflowing two days later, their contents strewn over the streets and ripped apart by gulls, crows and rats, was not something we witnessed in Paris or Seville. We called for a very basic demand of emptying all of the street bins at least every day.
Point two was accessibility re walking around the city. Again this was something all of us were familiar with. If we are walking from the city centre to any other part of the city we saw not just overflowing bins but were disturbed by the lack of places to stop and sit, very little public seating and absolutely no public toilets. Again, if we were hoping to compete with the major European cities these were basic and simple demands.
Walking would be less important if our third point was addressed – Public Transport. All of us had stories of trying to explain to visitors how to get from one part of the city to another. “Yes take the number 38 bus but not all of the number 38 buses as route 38 was different depending on what bus company it was” – explaining the bus system wasn’t easy. Worse still was explaining that the rail, Subway and buses were all separate systems, all different prices and did not work together on fares, ticketing or even connections.
When our demands were distilled by our facilitator and read out to the room we were disappointed but not surprised (we had been here before many times). The issues we raised that were the responsibility of the councils, pedestrian seating, public toilets, overflowing bins etc, had been eradicated and the only point read out to the assembled crowd from our table’s discussions was Public Transport, the only one not directly controlled by the Council. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that the new Council, working with the Scottish Govt, will bring in smart cards that would facilitate an integrated transport system, we were told it was a priority.
Four years later we have finally reached the point where a smart card that is useable for trains (both underground and overground) and buses is to be brought in. Unfortunately for people living in the city it will only be given to delegates and their staff attending COP26 and will only last for the duration of that event. Apparently its quite easy to introduce this (and subsequently scrap this system) for important people in a matter of weeks, but for the general public it’s too complicated to put in place with a mere four years to work it out.
One constant complaint about Glasgow’s public transport system is the reduced service on The Subway on Sundays when it opens at 10am and closes at 6pm. But, again, this problem is easily sorted when the political will is there to do it. Throughout the period of the UN Conference the underground will operate a full service on Sundays. These extended hours will end immediately when the conference is over, returning to a reduced service for plebs when Biden, Obama and the various Royals have returned home.
On top of this we have had the news this week that First Bus in Glasgow have scrapped the Daytripper tickets meaning that getting around the city becomes more expensive for ordinary residents. Meanwhile, Scotrail’s wonderful news of “more passenger seats” in their network actually translates as more carriages on Glasgow-Edinburgh trains while 300 services are cut from the timetable across the country.
The conclusion of our summit that day was the announcement of a “River Park” connecting Glasgow’s green spaces along the Clyde into one city “park”. The artist’s impressions were lovely, unfortunately that was as far as it got, there has been zero movement on it since, the idea seems to have disappeared in favour of the latest artist’s impression of a new square made from covering up the M8 in the city centre and an imagined “Metro” transport network from Glasgow to other points in Central Scotland. If you are looking for a sound investment for any spare cash you might have you could do worse than betting on this being another “vision” that never becomes a reality.
Accommodation in Glasgow has become unaffordable during COP26. Two huge cruise ships have been brought in from Eastern Europe to provide 4,000 beds for security and other staff. This is a sure sign, and an admission, that we didn’t have enough beds to cover the event in the first place. Hotels, B&Bs, hostels and the opportunistic chancers at AirBnB stand to make a fortune, but there is a hidden cost to this. Glasgow’s hidden homeless, the people you don’t see sleeping in doorways amount to thousands of people who use the good will of friends, couch-surfing and, importantly, backpacker hostels and budget hotels to find a bed to sleep in or shelter from the weather. Typically, budget hostels can be as little as £8 per night in a hostel, with the cheaper hotels affordable at £26-40 per night. I checked a hotel in Glasgow that was £28 last week, it was £1,462 for a single night during COP26. Often, when big events take place in Glasgow, those who use this type of accommodation head out of town to hostels elsewhere for a few nights. But, this time, that’s not possible as rooms have been taken up across the Central Belt from Greenock to Grangemouth, Kilmarnock to Cumbernauld. And it isn’t just the homeless. Last year I met with some young men who are regulars at one of Glasgow’s better known backpacker hostels. One of them actually had a flat but was in arrears with his bills and couldn’t afford to the cost of switching his electricity back on. He used the hostel once a week to sleep in a warm room, use the laundry facilities and have a shower. Again, he will be priced out of this as the hostel is fully booked – at £125 per night instead of the usual £8-10.
Back in 2017 when we were moaning about the street bins, the new SNP-led Council were only just in place. This was an inherited problem, a result of a lack of investment and ongoing cuts by Glasgow City Council over years. Now, we are being told that the current overflowing bins are a result of recovering from the lockdown during the pandemic. Protesters are being told that they are “yoons”, guilty of “SNP-Bad” despite the fact that they were raising these issues under the previous Labour-led council and years before COVID19 even existed. But it has to be said that cleansing services have become worse in recent years. The cuts to services and staff continue, the Council introduced a £35 charge for bulk uplifts this year (previously a free service) leading to an increase in fly-tipping, especially in areas with a high turnover of tenants. And domestic bin collection has changed from every two weeks to every 3 weeks leading to more overflow in back courts and closes.
The reality is that Glasgow is a mess, it is in crisis, even without tens of thousands of visitors pouring into the city for two weeks. The city was never capable of staging such a huge event without huge inconvenience to the people who live and work there. Roads are closed, schools are closed even (ironically for a climate change event) cycle and walking paths have been closed.
Campaigners are still fighting the closures of museums, sports facilities and libraries, still be re-opened after the pandemic and lockdown when, with very short notice, it was announced that Glasgow’s flagship attractions are to close for the duration of COP26. Kelvin Gallery, Kelvin Halls, The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and The Riverside Museum are closing to the public but will be open to hold champagne receptions for the elite visitors to Glasgow. The Queen will hold a banquet at Kelvin and various exclusive events will take place in these prestigious venues while the rest of us are locked out.
If I ran a venue with a capacity of 100 and decided to stage an event there for 1,000 people, asking the neighbours to make their living rooms and gardens available to me, asking local roads, schools and businesses to close to allow me to make this event happen, I would be laughed at. I would be told, quite rightly, that I should be holding events that I am capable of holding, within my limits and capabilities. One wonders why no-one in the UK, Scottish or Local Govt. were able to do the same for Glasgow. Glasgow, quite simply, is not capable of hosting an event well beyond its capacity, without huge inconvenience to its residents and workers. Nobody asked the public, consulted with communities or pointed out the sacrifices we would have to make to indulge in the fantasy of Johnson, Sturgeon and Aitken. Nobody ever does ask us. We, apparently, can eat cake!
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