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Cilt Scottish Region Annual Political Event - Paul Sweeney, Labour-Cooperative MSP for the Glasgow Region: 21 March 2022

Since being elected first to Westminster in 2017 and then to Holyrood in 2021, Paul has been on a steep learning curve. His political motivation as a member of the Cooperative Party began with the experience of his dad, whose employment at Yarrow's shipyard carried the constant spectre of unemployment and caused Paul to start thinking why did things always have to be this way, frustratedly glorying in the past when surely there could be a return of the self-confidence that had given Glasgow its pride as the Second City of Empire.

Back in 1913, Glasgow was the fourth largest city economy in Europe, turning out more ships than the whole of Germany. With signs already evident of problems ahead, the city experienced stagnation in the interwar years ended by the rush to remilitarisation. The boom would continue for a few years after 1945, but then it was downhill into a decline that stretched from the 1960s into the 1990s, with a population loss rivalling only Detroit. Social engineering drove clearance of the tenements, whose population was rehoused in peripheral estates and new towns - in the north side of the city 80% of homes were demolished in the years 1960-90.

One-third of the city's people were moved out as overspill, leaving inner-city neighbourhoods like Springburn, once locomotive-building capital of the Empire, bereft of community and deprived of leadership. The falling population triggered a vicious circle in decline of local retail and public services, while the loss of community confidence increased the tolerance of a deteriorating sense of place, with people having to accept a poor local environment of unattractive surroundings and a high crime rate that discouraged socialising. Then there came the pandemic, further exposing the community's lack of resilience and leaving the city with a greater swathe of empty floorspace than the area of New York's Freedom Tower.

Paul is a member of the Glasgow Heritage Trust, which seeks to rebuild communities by finding uses for empty land with a revival of affordable locally-managed housing. Neighbourhoods will need better connectivity if they are once again to be able to thrive, and the Get Glasgow Moving campaign seeks conditions equivalent to Transport for London, with integration of bus, rail and metro networks including an integrated fares structure with payment by contactless methods. Despite the difficulties in driving this forward, there has been some progress, with the 2019 Transport (Scotland) Act providing a new framework for the franchising or municipal operation of bus services. There would seem to be three alternative ways forward: bus quality partnerships harnessing goodwill but with little enforcement, franchising to provide for standards of service including modern ticketing, and a return to municipal operation lost when Strathclyde Buses were sold in 1998 to FirstGroup. It is clear that an emulation of Lothian Buses might require a capital outlay that could be difficult to achieve, however Mayor Burnham in Greater Manchester has mounted a successful legal challenge to introduce his B-network.

The need to rebuild resilience of communities is exemplified in Springburn by the damage to cohesiveness brought about by building of expressways and by the loss of quality jobs. The last remnant of railway manufacturing went on the closure in 2019 of St Rollox with the loss of 200 jobs. The site seems a natural location for servicing the rail network, yet the Scottish Government proved disinterested in taking it into public ownership, and faced with a new owner unconcerned about protecting its heritage and infrastructure Paul has succeeded in persuading Historic Environment Scotland to give the buildings Grade B listing, protecting them and also the tracks within.

Back in 1983, the Winter Gardens at Springburn had closed, and remain derelict and boarded up. They are now the subject of a bid to the UK Government's new Levelling Up fund for restoration as a cultural centre whose viability would be strengthened if social landlords could be persuaded to redensify the area's population with a mix of tenures to accommodate a rebalancing of the community to make it more diverse and self-sustaining. In order to restore pride in a sense of place, account must be taken of the city's built legacy, which includes no less than 118 properties on the Buildings at Risk register, most of them in poorer neighbourhoods. GHT's £1M annual budget is woefully insufficient to address the looming crisis among its surviving tenements, whose deteriorating stonework and potential stairwell collapses may require reform of the factoring system for management of properties in multiple ownership - and perhaps the spirit of legendary campaigner Mary Barbour on tackling rent controls in a coherent way. Paul sits on the relevant Holyrood committee, which has been advised that it could be 2026 before legislation is ready.

The proposal from Professors Begg and Docherty for a Glasgow Metro offering fast, affordable and accessible transport connecting all parts of the conurbation comes as a breath of fresh air to a city well-used to the purgatory of implementation associated with previous plans. Glasgow has seen no new railways since the Maryhill line was extended to Anniesland in 2005: use of the City Union line to form a Glasgow Crossrail has been under fruitless discussion for many years, while a new generation of trams never got off the ground and an Airport Rail Link was cancelled - in an era where Manchester powered ahead but Glasgow suffered loss of momentum following abolition of Strathclyde Regional Council. Inclusion of the Clyde Metro in the Scottish Government's current Strategic Transport Projects Review could be an indication that the city's recent paucity of ambition is about to end, and as the 2010s were about electrification of the Central Scotland interurban rail network so perhaps the 2020s could focus on converting and extending the heavy-rail suburban network to a light rail system that takes people economically and efficiently to where they want to go.

Glasgow's economic decline has been associated with loss of Headquarters activities, so that the city's businesses are now characterised by branch offices, with the real decisions taken elsewhere. The McVities biscuit factory at Tollcross is closing because unlike sister establishments it has no Unique Selling Point, eg jaffa-cakes in Manchester, water-biscuits in Carlisle. The city's three universities provide an intellectual network on which the Scottish Investment Bank might be able to build, with Scottish Enterprise perhaps taking a Golden Share so as to protect fledgling activity against predatory behaviour by outsiders. Building vessels for the Royal Navy at Govan seems secure for the next few years, and the challenge could be to deepen and strengthen supply chains perhaps with bond issues so as to create a new entrepreneurial class.

The visible collapse of confidence in Sauchiehall Street signifies the city centre's decline, and it may that housing cooperatives will have to be enabled to promote Compulsory Purchase Orders against absentee landlords. Fiscal reform may be needed at UK level: it is unhelpful that VAT, not payable on new builds, is levied at 20% on building refurbishments.

Paul would like free bus-travel extended to asylum-seekers in recognition that transport is about economic and social development, not mere profit and loss. In discussion he acknowledged that efficiency in the promotion of electric vehicles and transport alternatives would be enhanced if instead of imposing a duty on fuel Government were to meter car usage. Post-pandemic car travel has revived more rapidly than after the banking crisis of 2008, yet ScotRail shows the lowest recovery of any rail operator, why should this be so? A more cooperatively-minded approach to provision of public transport could move us on from the present "lemming socialism" of privatised profiteering and socialised losses. Glasgow is like no other British city in having a motorway through its heart, imposing social division and pollution, but the discovery on the M8 of concrete cancer associated with the Genoa bridge-collapse may point to the boulevardisation of the motorway, with through traffic switched onto the much more recent M74 Northern Extension in a move that might parallel the US Federal Government's assistance towards deconstruction of urban freeways. Port development has been inhibited by Peel Holdings promotion of Merseyside at the expense of Clydeside, but the former Exxon refinery at Bowling and the Inchinnan site have the potential to house a state-of-the-art shipbuilding facility in succession to Ferguson's.

Report by John Yellowlees.


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