Back to Square One (January 22, 2013)
The George Square situation has moved quickly since Friday (18th Jan) morning. Design 2 for the square’s redesign by John McAslan & Partners was picked by the competition jury, only for it to be announced that there was to be a ‘facelift’ for the square instead.
This facelift according to Gordon Matheson will involve the retention of the statues and the remaining greenspace in the east of the square.
“They also want us to keep the statues where they are, and they like the grass. However, they clearly want rid of the red Tarmac. … I am proud to say that I am listening to them.”
£15m is still going to be spent, this time without outsourcing the designer. The money is still coming through the controversial TIF scheme (according to the Herald in 2011 ”the TIF scheme allows councils to fund projects that are expected to improve the environment for business by borrowing from a public loan fund”). A council spokesman told STV:
“The Tax Incremental Finance agreement with the Scottish Government for the Buchanan Quarter means we cannot spend this money on anything other than new capital projects in the vicinity of the Buchanan Quarter.”
The same council spokesman also mentioned people wanted more events in the square:
“The research we did was entirely appropriate and told us what people wanted to have in the square.”
“They wanted a square that was nice to look at and sit in, had more staged events and had statues.”
We assume the spokesman is referring to the now infamous Ipos Mori non-quantitative ‘poll’ of 42 people.
So, citizens want more events? In quantitative poll by Urban Realm of almost 200 people 90% of respondents felt greenspace should be a priority, with only 11% prioritising events. This is also reflected in the thousands of online discussions – Glaswegians want fewer events in the square, if any. When George Square was bulldozed to make way for events in 1998, the general public then were also far from happy:
“People were sickened to see the scenes of devastation.
Yesterday, McAveety said: ‘We’ll have an upgraded surface and permanent entertainment space. We will replace the trees which have Dutch Elm Disease.
‘This is a reasonable upgrading, but any substantial change to the square would involve all the citizens of Glasgow.’”
The continued emphasis on events (and the tents, portaloos and crush barriers that go with them) and the same funding source suggests the plan is generally the same: improve the events infrastructure of the square with a view to herding as many people as possible into the square in the hope they empty their pockets, particularly in Land Securities’, Buchanan Quarter, who are providing much of the cash for the development.
Whilst investment in the city is to be welcomed – does it need to be at the expense of a famous public space? Is the design of the square relevant if it is covered in giant marquees for half of the year and a construction site for the rest? There are several areas in the city centre that are crying out for investment: The Selfridges site in the Merchant City and the King Street car park are two areas that would benefit immensely from events, without damaging the fabric of the city.
Apparently councillors will make a decision on George Square on the 7th of February. Businesses will always covet our valuable public space, we need strong councillors to stand in their way. We would hope they grasp this opportunity to right the wrongs of 1998 and give the square back to the citizens of Glasgow – for good.
Stripped for business
Eoin Anderson, Neil Gray, Emily Roff
Urban struggles around social reproduction and social space have traditionally been seen as ancillary on the left. But in a city hollowed out by the collapse of its manufacturing base, we argue that the redevelopment of George Square in Glasgow is symptomatic of contemporary urban enclosure, the privatisation of space, and an inflationary rentier economy. Henri Lefebvre’s speculative 1960s hypothesis that urbanisation was supplanting industrialisation is today writ large in advanced capitalist economies. Though geographically uneven, gentrification, sugar-coated as regeneration, is now a global urban strategy. In Glasgow, large-scale projects such as the Clyde Waterfront River Corridor, the Clyde Gateway and the 2014 Commonwealth Games development, along with ‘culture-led’ neighbourhood gentrification, are drastically reshaping living conditions at the level of social reproduction (rent, debt, transport, community), at the same time as they actively produce new relations of production and consumption (finance, retail, property, leisure).
In September 2012, Glasgow City Council (GCC) announced another large-scale regeneration project: a £15 million re-design of George Square, part of a major public-private development in the city centre. By November an international procurement exercise had produced a shortlist of six firms bidding to transform the square into “‘Glasgow’s primary urban space’, with a ‘day and night environment’ that supports creativity and is a ‘world class tourist destination’”. The winning proposal will be chosen in spring of 2013, with the initial stage of the development scheduled for completion in time for the Commonwealth Games.
The redevelopment of George Square must be seen in the context of inter-city competition, and boosterist attempts to reposition Glasgow as a site of leisure, retail and consumption for the investor, the developer, the shopper, the money-laden tourist and the conference delegate. The square, a central, symbolic site, is being reconfigured to provide a flexible corporate space – ‘a blank canvas’ – for spectacle and display, place-making, and event-led consumer attraction. The council’s intention to remove the square’s 13 statues (excluding the Cenotaph) as soon as February has already attracted opprobrium from various quarters, including Green councillors, local residents, and the Queen’s sculptor. Anger has also been stoked by proposed restrictions on mass gatherings in the vicinity of the square. A briefing note issued in August to ‘stakeholders’ including unions, Orange Lodges, and campaign groups, cites health and safety, public order concerns and the cost of policing to support the recommendation that George Square no longer be made available as a legitimate location for gathering or disbanding public processions or political demonstrations. These proposals have been the primary focus of critical response on the left. Calls to defend the right to protest have been bolstered by invocations of the Battle of George Square and Glasgow’s radical protest tradition. But the history of the square, written in its monuments, is equally that of mercantile, Unionist, and colonial interests, and the restriction of protest is, in a sense, collateral to urban revalorisation and the ongoing rebranding of Glasgow as a ‘creative city’. We suggest that critique of the redevelopment must be founded in a material analysis of contemporary flows of capital in and around George Square, and the ongoing land-grab of the city centre.
Initial funding for the George Square redevelopment, part of the Buchanan Quarter project, comes from Tax Increment Financing (T.I.F.), a controversial method for subsidising development and infrastructure projects widespread in the US but considered innovative in the context of Scottish urban policy. T.I.F. allows public bodies to ‘unlock regeneration projects’ by borrowing against projected increases in ‘non-domestic rates’ (land value and property based taxes) to finance developments which will create the conditions for said future tax increases (the ‘tax increment’). In April 2012, under guidance from the Scottish Futures Trust, GCC agreed a 25-year T.I.F. scheme with the Public Works Loans Board, worth £80 million. This sum will be augmented by £310 million in private finance. Along with the George Square redevelopment, this money will go towards a £55 million expansion of the Buchanan Galleries, creating a city-centre ‘supermall’.
First in line to profit are the owners of the Galleries, Buchanan Partnership – made up of Land Securities PLC (the largest commercial property company in the UK) and Henderson Global Investors (one of Europe’s largest investment managers). That private retailers have proven eager to fill out the Buchanan Quarter development is hardly surprising. They stand to gain a spot on the second busiest shopping street in the UK, support from a local authority whose financial soundness depends upon their commercial success, and praise from politicians for the provision of a few jobs in a sector that combines precarious employment with increasing intensification of labour. Aside from low wages and more shops, the only infrastructural improvements that Glasgow residents are being promised – from £390 million of investment – are “materially enhanced entrances on the east and west sides of Queen Street Station” and the strengthening of the Cathedral St Bridge. Given the parlous state of the economy, including the retail sector, future public gains from T.I.F., like the paper claims on fictitious capital, are far from guaranteed.
Although the tendering process is ongoing for the redesign of George Square itself, the August 2012 Ipsos Mori consultation report suggests an underlying cultural and commercial ordering inseparable from the flows of capital on Buchanan Street. The report is split into two sections, ‘Public Views’ and ‘Stakeholder Views’. The ‘Public View’ is mostly that the square is adequate, is not a priority given the huge pressure upon council funding, or could use a bit more grass, some seats, or a toilet. The ‘Stakeholder View’ speaks of ‘multifunctional’ or ‘flexible’ space for one-off mega-events (pace the involvement of T in the Park promoter Geoff Ellis) and the interpolation of creative and economic interests, with “a particular focus on representing Glasgow’s internationally renowned art scene”. Borrowing from the ubiquitous, discredited, ‘creativity script’ (Charles Landry, Richard Florida), the aim is to align George Square with the cultural marketing of the city.
The square will perform as a gateway to ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’ and as a spatial resumé for the uninitiated, which will “highlight its credentials as a modern, creative city”; a flexible habitat suited to the ‘creative class’ of Glasgow, with Buchanan Galleries (a sponsor of Glasgow School of Art) a prominent site of extraction. None of the six companies on the shortlist are new to this strain of creative branding, having contributed to the Olympic Park in London, New York City’s High Line park, and the new Glasgow School of Art campus. Reflecting the commodification of the square, George House, in the north-east corner, is set to become another post-modernist cube, likely occupied by Ernst & Young, while hundreds of social homes in Sighthill are quietly erased from the skyline. Displacing statues of the colonialists and capitalists under whose brutal law the working class of Glasgow built the second city of Empire, will be Mackintosh figures of a second wave of entrepreneurialism, cultural rather than industrial, along with other, more abstract sculptures beckoning shoppers upstream towards the ‘supermall’.
The entanglement of urban governance with private interests – GCC’s watchword since the 1980s – is further evinced in the disposal of public property city-wide, and the profit-driven ‘efficiencies’ which have led to the redundancies of more than 2,500 council employees in the last two years. In 2008, the council’s offices occupied 950,000 square feet in the city centre; by April 2011 that had shrunk to 350,000 square feet, as part of a plan to “rationalise…and dispose of effectively” council-owned property across the city. This policy is being delivered in partnership with international outsourcing giant Serco, in an arrangement hyped as “a magnet for best-practice-seeking local authorities throughout the world”. Established in 2008 under the name ACCESS, this joint venture was created to take on a ten-year, £265 million contract to manage the council’s IT and property services. Tasked with delivering £73 million in savings by 2013, ACCESS’s responsibility as ‘Corporate Landlord’ encompasses 900 council-owned buildings – warehouses, offices, libraries, schools – each of which will be assessed as to whether it represents “optimal space usage” and supports “business needs” and “service reforms”. Where ACCESS deems it appropriate, different functions and services may be “co-located” in the same building, or dissolved, as a result of which property can be declared surplus to requirements and ownership transferred to GCC’s controversial arm’s-length subsidiary, City Property LLP, to be disposed of on the rental market by their agent, Ryden.
At a safe distance from democratic scrutiny and accountability, ACCESS’s Corporate Landlord strategy is transforming not only the configuration of public property and services in Glasgow, but also working conditions of council staff. Echoing the rhetoric of ‘flexibility’ and ‘multifunctionality’ used to evoke a more investor-friendly and commercially-alluring future for George Square, ACCESS’s vision of ‘Tomorrow’s Office’ (for ‘Tomorrow’s Council’) rests on a liquefaction of the workforce such that previously ‘static’ Council employees are now expected to embrace ‘agile working’ within the mobile office environment: hot-desking or networked via their virtual desktops; sharing their offices across departments and working on the move, ‘nomadically’. Like the Time and Motion men who conducted time efficiency audits in industrial workplaces, ACCESS have embarked upon their challenge with zeal, wringing efficiencies from an often recalcitrant workforce. Today the technologically-driven intensification of space, rather than time, is indicative of a broader trend towards the extraction of value not from labour, but from land. “Co-location and building disposal will drive significant savings” for the council, promises ACCESS’s Corporate Landlord Case Study report – savings subject to ‘gainshare’ with Serco, in proportions undisclosed.
Long ago, Keynes proclaimed ‘the euthanasia of the rentier’, and Marx also hoped that industrial capitalism would usurp the rentier usurpers. But industrial capitalism has departed Glasgow, and the redevelopment of George Square mirrors the contemporary imagineering of the city as a site of cultural production, creative consumption, precarious labour and rentier interests. As the geographer Eliot Tretter has noted, “Glasgow is a primary example of an industrial city that has re-invented itself through the exploitation of its cultural infrastructure”. That re-invention has insidious dimensions. The relentless outsourcing of central functions of the council places the city’s governance ever more profoundly beyond democratic control, and the euphemism of ‘regeneration’ can’t obscure the gentrification of the city, with all its negative associations of rent-racking, displacement and class cleansing. Tax increment financing ensures that GCC is bound in perpetuity to nurture retail development and high-end consumption in the vicinity of Buchanan Street; the threat of default on this flagship T.I.F. project (a stark possibility given the current compression on wages and consumer spending) will see the council further inscribed, materially as well as ideologically, to private interests. The re-making of George Square is just another obligatory step to favour investors. There is a politics of space, because space is political said Lefebvre. With all of the above in mind, the need to take back public urban space from virulent privatisation is more necessary than ever.
It is a truism that just as public space is critical to the functioning of the city, so is its nature, definition and usage the source of recurrent conflict. Public space wars are endemic to the city and, if anything, are becoming of renewed significance as cities undergo continuing rounds of regeneration to meet the challenges of global competition. The current restructuring of cities and of its public spaces has led some commentators to the pessimistic conclusion that what we are witnessing is the end of public space. If, as a variant of endism, the argument is overstated in a literal sense, what is less disputable is that public spaces have been and are being steadily eroded as a result of how the processes of urban restructuring are unfolding. Yet, they are processes which are by no means unchallenged. Alongside those who talk in terms of the end of public space are those who have raised the question of ‘whose public space?’, opening up the recognition that, however challenging, public spaces in the city need to serve the multiple publics comprising the city rather than just the particular interests of elite groups.
Such debates assume that we are able to define what we mean by public space. Initially, at least, this might appear a straightforward task. A minimal account might, then, define public space in terms of two fundamental criteria, its accessibility and its inclusion. A public space should be accessible to all and be inclusionary in the sense of not only how it is used but also in how it is produced, propositions that sound relatively uncontentious. Yet, neither term is unproblematic once they are unpacked, revealing the contradictions and tensions which accompany the meaning of public space and its production. Thus, accessibility is measurable in different ways, physically and socially. Arguing that a public space – such as a central square in a city – should be physically accessible, i.e. useable to all, would appear essential to the meaning of its being public. But accessibility measured socially, the meaning of that space to ourselves personally, might run counter to the logic of physical accessibility precisely because the more (physically) accessible a space the more impersonal it might become (because of the diversity and volume of people using it). If we could restrict its patronage – limit its physical accessibility – to certain groups then, socially such a space might become more accessible, at least for those able to regulate its usage. The contradiction begins to show why certain groups – those defined as street beggars, for example – might become the object of exclusion from key civic spaces. But more generally, the example illustrates the tensions that underpin the nature of what we mean by public space, how it is defined, how it is produced and how it is regulated.
City centre spaces, riverside regeneration sites and other such spaces belong more to the city as a whole, to all its residents. But it is precisely because their ownership is more diffuse that such spaces are more fragile, becoming in effect more easily appropriated by elite groups.
Cities are themselves sites of ongoing conflict and competition – between (for example) social classes, between users of different types of land, between car-owners and those dependent on public transport – so it is small wonder that conflict over public spaces is endemic. Added to this is that so much of the city actually comprises public space of one kind or another – or put another way, the term public space encompasses a wide variety of different types of activity reflecting the different dimensions of the city, social, political as well as economic. Yet, the competition between different groups and the frequency of different types of public space making up the city are insufficient explanations as to why conflict over public space is so commonplace. More fundamental are the unequal power relations between different groups within the city and what can be termed the ‘fragility’ of public space, its ability to be appropriated and regulated to meet the aims of particular groups and interests.
One way in which we can begin to understand the implications of this fragility stems from the meanings and importance public spaces have to everyday life. Here the reality is that it is in the local neighbourhoods in which we live that our investment in the city is most immediate, so that it is locally that conflicts over public space are likely to become more intense. Thus, while in popular imagination, and certainly in media attention, public space conflicts tend to focus on particular types of episode particularly those that have relevance for the city as a whole – the redesignation of key civic spaces, the creation of iconic buildings occupying key sites and linked to the rebranding of the city – in fact most conflicts are much more localised. From protests resisting the closure of a valued local public facility, to the reclaiming of streets and many others, conflicts over public space tend to be more commonplace in the neighbourhoods and communities in which we live than they are over changes in the key public spaces of the city. What are perceived to be the threats to a local public amenity, to the privatisation of a part of a major park such as the recent Go Ape application in Pollok Park, might generate sufficient opposition so that local residents will organise and participate in a march. Opposition to proposals to change key civic spaces, to introduce an architecturally contentious iconic building as part of a regenerated waterfront (as in the Fourth Grace in Liverpool for the Year of Culture in 2008) may be expressed popularly through the media and through other means, but rarely generates sufficient reaction that citizens feel the need to organise a march or demonstration. In other words, public spaces differ in the sense of ownership they generate – for those in the local neighbourhood the sense of ownership is more immediate as are the benefits (and possible disbenefits) arising from them. City centre spaces, riverside regeneration sites and other such spaces belong more to the city as a whole, to all its residents. But it is precisely because their ownership is more diffuse that such spaces are more fragile, becoming in effect more easily appropriated by elite groups. Significantly, such appropriation can become expressed as being in the public interest, as the means of instilling a sense of civic pride and so appealing to the collective interests of citizens as a whole.
The importance of this was readily apparent in the Victorian city and to its elites. The development of urban parks is a case in point, the establishment of which reflected not just the ability of the growing middle classes to impose their values on the working class but also, through the provision of such spaces, to attempt to control their behaviour within the city. Elsewhere within the city, particularly in its central area, privileged groups were able to inscribe their values into the urban landscape. Thus key civic spaces, and their adornment through the use of public art, were decided by local political elites. Use(r)s of the city centre considered inappropriate were moved to peripheral locations or excluded – the ongoing conflicts arising from street trading in the Victorian city or, as a more specific example, the physical marginalisation and successive relocating of Paddy’s Market in Victorian Glasgow illustrate the exclusionary processes accompanying public space usage and its regulation which favoured particular groups. By definition, such exclusionary processes question the extent to which spaces meet the basic criterion of publicness.
These historical precedents bear some relevance to the contemporary public space wars, even if the contexts in which they are being played out differ. The gentrification of cities, the emphasis placed on producing attractive city centres able to attract tourism and other inwards investment, the marketing of cities are all typical of the policies guiding the regeneration of cities which in turn is part of the neoliberal orthodoxy aimed at ensuring the competitiveness of the city in the marketplace. Each has profound implications on how public spaces are being reproduced and regulated effectively to serve particular interests.
Underpinning public space conflicts in the city are the unequal power relations between different groups. Yet a deeper level of analysis would need to venture into the contradictions between representative and participatory democracy and their implications for the production of public space. How public spaces are produced and regulated – how public they are – is based on a meaning of urban democracy that privileges (elected) representative democracy over participatory democracy. Hence the reality, that public spaces have been and are produced for us rather than with us. Yet, as the experience of any city will demonstrate, public space wars do not always reflect the interests of elite groups or the objectives of neoliberal policies. Closures of local public facilities are successfully resisted as are inappropriate incursions into public spaces, parks for example, aiming at their commodification, while cities, their neighbourhoods particularly, have public spaces that are beyond the neoliberal gaze and are safeguarded through local participatory action.
George Square ‘mortgaged’ to Barclays Bank (March 2010)
“…Glasgow’s principal civic space, George Square, running through the conference as a leitmotiv…”
Glasgow has a new, timely, ALEO (arms length external organisation), City Property (Glasgow) LLP, to which Glasgow City Council will be transferring the rights to the income from hundreds of income-generating properties in exchange for £120m. The titles to the properties will still legally remain the council’s in most cases, although a small number have been already marked for sale.
“City Property (Glasgow) LLP was established on 1st October 2009, evolving from the property services previously provided by Glasgow City Council, Development & Regeneration Services. Operating as an autonomous company with its own Board and Managing Director will enable the organisation to efficiently and effectively deliver to the market a wide range of exciting property opportunities. City Property (Glasgow) LLP covers four main areas of activity: Disposal, Development, Regeneration, Investment Opportunities.” http://www.citypropertyglasgow.co.uk
Green Councillor, Nina Baker, has uncovered City Property (Glasgow) LLP’s business case was based on all the council’s properties, not just the ‘surplus’ or income-generating ones. The list provided to the consultants who did the business plan included the parks, George Square, etc, etc.
Bizarrely, Baker found, the £120m loan from Barclays required no due diligence, so none of the property titles have been checked; contamination hasn’t been checked. The LLP reckons it can easily pay off the loan from the rental incomes and will get £2m from GCC to manage other properties. However, one of its roles is to prepare surplus properties for sale, e.g. by decontamination and getting planning permissions, etc. But those may be more difficult than they think if any are Common Good Fund (CGF) or have other restrictions on the titles. To give an example, Overnewton community centre (in Overnewton Square) is one of the dozen closed by Labour’s budget cuts and was to be handed over to the LLP for demolition. However if they had done that, they couldn’t sell the land or rebuild on it because of the existing restrictions in disposition documents in the title. They have no way to know if any are CGF.
So the LLP is at significant risk of not realising the income it needs to pay off the £120m loan. All of the loan is already promised a few times over by the Council for paying redundancies, as well as building primary schools* and care homes, etc, etc…
It may soon be easier for residents of Glasgow to empathise with the citizens of Iceland.
* This is not the first time politicians have recently ‘wrongly accounted’. The principal reason put forward for the closure of 20 schools in the city last year could not be supported by official statistics. In April 2009 leading Labour politicians within the country’s largest local authority revealed that they intended to close a significant number of city schools because of “falling school rolls”, after which it transpired the principal reason put forward for the closures could not be supported by official statistics, but still intimated an extra £2million in cuts to the city’s education budget to accommodate for increased number of pupils in remaining city classrooms as the decision on closures would not be reversed.