By Murray Biagini Kemp
Glasgow is being blighted by another, less discussed epidemic. As the human toll of coronavirus mounts up, an unchecked outbreak of property development threatens to kill off the city’s cultural life. Pub giant Wetherspoons stands poised over Sub Club, one of Scotland’s best loved electronic music venues, threatening the future of the club due to its incompatibility with yet another proposed hotel development. The public green spaces surrounding Kelvingrove Park are trimmed off, sold by Glasgow City Council for the construction of apartment complexes to accommodate the overspill of wealth from Park Circus. Even the iconic “People Make Glasgow” sign stands condemned, due to be ‘regenerated’ into a gleaming white monstrosity of an office/hotel complex. The same story is repeated citywide, with more and more cultural hubs being crushed under the wheels of profit.
As residents adopt mixed opinions concerning these new developments, the city’s religious divides are joined by new battle lines. Dropping the hatchets and razors in favour of laptop keyboards, the clashes move from the streets to the comment sections of Facebook. On the one hand, the “Not Another Hotel” team lament the seemingly endless number of hotels and office developments given the go-ahead. On the other, the “Can’t Stop Progress” team cheer on the jobs and financial benefits promised by developers.
These promises, however, draw a blurry line between ‘progress’ and ‘profit’. The spikes in GDP accompanied by such widespread development drives come at a huge cost for the people living amongst them. The vibrant spread of cultural sites that contribute to the city’s international reputation as a multicultural hotspot are snuffed out, replaced by soulless corporate facades. Places serving the people of the city are transformed to become mere profit machines for international elites. Diversity dwindles, giving way to monotony. While these are reported as improvements on the graphs adorning CEO desks, the lived reality is a dramatic loss of both cultural richness and opportunity, leaving many Glaswegians out in the cold from the capitalistic buffet which has served up their city for consumption.
Tourists do need places to stay. Yet none will be drawn to Glasgow if it looks exactly the same as the thousands of other globalised cities serving only as networks of corporate profiteering. Businesses may want for office space. However, with real wages having stagnated for the past decade while billionaire wealth reaches astronomical levels, in reality it is only the bosses who need this, not the people producing the wealth. These people do need homes. But with almost 9000 in Glasgow lying empty, it is the distribution, not the construction of these that needs to change.
As the light at the end of the long tunnel of coronavirus looms closer, the epidemic that is killing off our city’s culture shows no signs of plateauing. The sound of silence reverberating off sandstone blocks onto empty streets and shuttered storefronts may have become ‘the new normal’, but will not necessarily subside with the virus. The last thing that the people of Glasgow need is to emerge exhausted and broken from this pandemic, only to find large swathes of the cityscape having been scooped up by corporations taking advantage of the economic chaos to close lucrative property deals over the wreckage. The charm, history and culture of this city have taken centuries to build, yet risk being destroyed within years by the clipboards and wrecking balls of capitalist commerce.
It is the people, not the profit that makes Glasgow, and it is about time the scales of ‘progress’ swung in their favour. Derelict sites should be placed under the control of the communities they are situated in, instead of being left to rot while waiting for investment. Regeneration projects should be led by publicly elected committees, not corporate boardrooms whose community connections extend only to names on a chart. As the world reels from the economic blows of repeated lockdowns and the shadow of the climate crisis looms ever bigger, development must be valued in terms of public benefit, not the private profit of faceless investors. With more and more aspects of our existence falling out of the public grasp and into their hands, taking back control of our physical spaces is crucial. Once the health of our city has been secured, the safeguarding of its soul must follow.