Ahead of the make-or-break UN climate summit in Glasgow, council leader Susan Aitken tells our Writer at Large of her revolutionary plans to transform our largest city
ASK Susan Aitken about her vision for the future of Glasgow and she’ll talk for 20 minutes straight, barely pausing for breath. Little wonder. Aitken runs the city – and Glasgow is in the international spotlight as it prepares to host the most important diplomatic event of the decade: the UN climate summit known, inelegantly, as COP26.
Elsewhere in the world, a politician like Aitken would be known as mayor but here in Scotland she gets the less grand title of “council leader”. It’s a sign of just how lacking in power Scottish councils are – that’s just one of the many things Aitken wants to change.
Given Glasgow is hosting the summit that’s supposed to save humanity – COP26, after all, is a last-ditch attempt by world leaders to arrest climate change before it’s too late –Aitken wants to make sure the city is fit for the 21st century.
Clearly with any politician there’s spin and false promises, but one thing’s for sure –Susan Aitken has the courage to dream big and put herself on the line. If her vision falls flat then it’s Aitken people will blame. Glaswegians don’t take kindly to baloney.
If Aitken fails it will also have far-reaching consequences for Scottish politics as she is Glasgow’s first SNP leader after nationalists ended decades of Labour rule. With the word “climate” flashing in her mind, Aitken wants to use the Clyde to heat hundreds of thousands of homes, turn the river into Scotland’s answer to the Seine in Paris – green Glasgow making it a global eco-city – and snatch back land owned by big business.
Yet her bold vision clashes against the grim reality of life in Glasgow. There is deep poverty, rat infestations, litter in the streets, and a post-industrial landscape scarred by vacant lots and the blight of a motorway cutting right through the city’s heart.
Aitken is banking on “Glasgow’s very challenges, our imperfections as a post-industrial city” as the catalyst for change. Heavy industry is gone. The city needs a new identity. Nearly two million people in the Greater Glasgow area, scientists warn, face chaos from issues like flooding through climate change. Houses need retrofitted; flood defences need built. It’s now or never.
The leader of Glasgow City Council believes that she can address Glasgow’s historic problems of ingrained poverty and inequality by forging a green future. Build a great public transport system and jobs will flow, health will improve. Reclaim vacant sites for shops and offices, and turn the Clyde into a river of gold through energy production and tourism.
Transport is at the heart of this vision – a new metro system of trams, rapid transit buses and light rail, which connect all parts of a city where outlining areas have often been forgotten. “The lack of connectivity reinforces inequality,” says Aitken. “It cuts people off from economic opportunities. There are places which aren’t accessible by public transport, only car, and this in a city which has the lowest car ownership in the UK.”
Aitken wants to “address how much of our city is given over to traffic”. Glasgow, under Aitken, will see more “car-free zones”.
A river of gold
FITTINGLY, with the Clyde at the heart of Glasgow, the river is at the core of this new vision. Aitken wants the Clyde to rival the Seine or the Thames – a vibrant, bustling waterway which creates jobs, at the centre of city life. “One of the things that’s holding back that potential is that within 150 metres of either side of its banks we’ve significant amounts of vacant and derelict land,” she points out. Many of these vacant lots are in areas of deprivation. “That’s not coincidental,” Aitken adds.
Some £60 million is being spent on quay walls “to fix the bits that hold up the banks of the Clyde”. That has triggered the flurry of building work in the previously ramshackle Tradeston area as new offices can’t be built on crumbling banks. A tidal barrier is also needed as the climate threat intensifies. “It would be further out, closer to the Firth of Clyde,” Aitken says. The threat of flooding is a “big barrier to development”, she adds.
But the most ambitious idea is using the Clyde for energy. “We want to really exploit the Clyde’s renewable energy potential,” she says. “The most important thing we can do with our river is heat. We think we can heat half the city. Certainly, the estimation is that around 50 per cent of the city could be sourced by the Clyde.” The council, meanwhile, is working with Strathclyde University on the science.
“One of the big-scale interventions needed is to get the city to net zero – domestic heat is massively important for that. We need to get the city onto renewable heat sources.”
MORE powers are needed to transform the city, especially beefed-up compulsory purchase orders allowing the council to forcibly buy up vacant lots. “Where we really lack powers is around taking over empty commercial units. A lot of these are owned by big hedge funds and pension funds who couldn’t care less – it has a hugely deleterious impact on the city,” says Aitken.
“I don’t think our compulsory purchase powers are flexible or swift enough. I think that’s where the Scottish Government can really help us, if it requires legislative change to get these kinds of spaces reactivated as quickly as possibly. There may be a slightly Zimbabwean vibe about going in and taking over, but it’s what we need to be able to do.”
What if COP26 fails?
AITKEN’S vision will be for nothing, though, if COP26 fails. “There’s always a danger when governments get together that it’s a talking shop,” she admits. Progress since the 2016 Paris Agreement, which set global heating limits, “hasn’t been good”. The Glasgow summit “can’t be a disappointment”. She empathises with public fears and scepticism that COP26 will be a greenwashing exercise, but she’s optimistic of success and believes there is still time to arrest climate change.
“I don’t think we’re past the point of no return,” she says.
As a Cold War child, Aitken says: “I feel enormous sympathy for young people. Climate change is their mushroom cloud.” She admits, though, that political leaders have perhaps not been blunt enough with the public over the threat of climate change and personal responsibility.
Glasgow has “historically bad recycling rates”, she points out. “We throw far too much stuff out. We need to change that. There’s some difficult messages there. It’s not your human right to chuck whatever you want in your green bin.”
Gross waste is going to affect someone in Bolivia but also someone in Glasgow, she adds. “I don’t think we’ve made that connection as strongly as we need to.” But Aitken takes hope in young people “telling their elders you need to change your attitude”.
However, she doesn’t want to frame the discussion around ordinary people “having to give things up. In Glasgow, with a lot of people struggling, you can’t ask folk to give up more … that’s true on a global scale”. But people do have “to make changes in behaviour regardless of income or background”. Aitken is also clear that it’s government and business that must carry the financial burden. “It’s certainly not the responsibility of citizens to shoulder the cost,” she says. “There’s plenty of money out there.”
Rise of passive homes
RETROFITTING 450,000 homes for energy efficiency across Glasgow will cost around £10 billion. Glasgow’s famous tenements, however, are infamously energy inefficient. The council has successfully experimented with making empty tenements “passive houses” – so they leave the smallest carbon footprint. The plan is to make this “rolloutable so we can apply it to 70,000 tenements across the city. It can be done”.
The physical nature of Glasgow will be utterly changed if Aitken’s vision comes to fruition. The “Avenues Programme” will, in some cases, entirely remove private cars from streets and in others significantly reduce the amount of space for cars, increasing the amount for walking and cycling.
The motorway cutting into the heart of the city is “absolutely grim”, Aitken says.
She plans to “put a cap over the M8 –tunnellising the M8 at Charing Cross so you essentially put your motorway underground and create new public space – and reconnect the Mitchell Library and Anderston with Charing Cross and the other side of the city so it’s all totally walkable. You can build restaurants, cafes, houses, offices, whatever. The motorway is such a baleful legacy – to be able to turn that around would be fantastic”.
The Clyde Climate Forest. meanwhile, will see 18 million trees planted in Glasgow and there will be more space for people to grow fruit and vegetables.
With the SNP Government regularly accused of “all talk and no action” on climate change, Aitken risks her vision being greeted with scepticism. However, when asked when the city will see real progress on her plans, she replies: “When we can resource it – which we hope could be sooner rather than later.”
The city is seeking capital from private investors – many of whom will be at COP26. Financing from Government is also essential.
Shopping city’s death?
GLASGOW is one of Britain’s leading “shopping cities”. Covid, however, has accelerated the decline of city-centre shopping wrought by the online giants. “Glasgow city centre has been hit harder than any other outside London. We’re slowest to return in terms of footfall,” Aitken points out.
She puts this down to the concentration of retail and offices, and the lack of homes, in the city centre. “We need a lot more people living in the city centre,” Aitken says.
That means getting services like schools back in Glasgow’s heart. Commercially, there are several “significant forthcoming planned investments” – which she can’t yet talk about – that offer hope.
However, Glasgow’s neighbourhood high streets – places like Shawlands, Byres Road and Dennistoun – are thriving. Covid means “people have stayed local”, says Aitken, and individual entrepreneurs are filling the gaps left by giants like Debenhams. Aitken believes “the retail offering that remains will be distinctive”.
Malls will have to be unique to survive, she adds. Chain stories will aim to be “much more street-based”, Aitken says, rather than hidden away in shopping centres.
People will want experience and provenance – a business with a story to tell and something different to offer. “The past is not returning,” she adds.
The council helps shop owners where it can, but “a lot of this isn’t in our gift”, she says. There’s not much the council can do to make private landlords reduce rents. But where the council is a commercial landlord – in areas like the Saltmarket –peppercorn rents have been set up to help new retailers. There’s help in areas of high deprivation, too, like the city’s Calton.
Businesses, though, need to be encouraged into the north of the city. One of Glasgow’s greatest failures over decades has also been the lack of development of city lanes. Think of European cities like Utrecht with bustling back lanes filled with cafés and bars. There’s a “lane strategy” in Glasgow – but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere very fast.
Aitken has been “nagging” the Scottish Government for help over Glasgow city centre. “I’m not sure that people in Scotland really quite understand how significant an economic space this is, in particular the 170,000 jobs housed in Glasgow city centre, and that’s not counting the supply chain,” she says.
“There’s no greater concentration of economic activity in Scotland. If Glasgow city centre goes, that’s national impact – it’s not just this city – because those jobs are for people far beyond the metropolitan region.”
An end to council paternalism
AITKEN is unsurprisingly trying to rewrite the rulebook. Gone is the old top down “council knows best” attitude. The challenges of the 21st century are far too big for what Aitken calls “municipal paternalism” – or as some in her administration would say, “the old-style socialism of Scottish Labour”. It’s not a rejection of “municipalism”, she says, but of “statism”. With so much change coming “we don’t want to see a repeat of what happened when Easterhouse and Castlemilk were built”. This time, she wants people making decisions about their own areas.
If a Glaswegian has an idea that’s good for their community and the city, bring it forward and if it works, money will be provided, assistance given, and the council will eventually step back and let people run the project themselves. Nor does Aitken have a problem working with anyone she can lay her hands on – businesses, trade unions, charities. “There needs to be the ability to say to folk, ‘right, we need your help on this. We simply don’t have the capacity to do all of this on our own’.”
Ending paternalism means citizens will have to take tough decisions themselves, though. Aitken points to libraries as an example. People are attached to their historic library buildings but many aren’t fit for purpose. That will mean people choosing whether the council pays “to gussy up” an old library or create a better service in a new building.
Aitken says she “fundamentally disagrees” with the idea that citizens “can’t manage unless the council is there, not just holding their hand but doing it for them”. The culture change is far from complete, though. “We’re not quite there yet,” she admits.
The way Glasgow deals with litter might prove if this new “people-centred” approach really works. Rubbish on the streets isn’t a good look for COP26 . While there are plans to give Glasgow a deep clean ahead of world leaders arriving, council sources say locals also have to take responsibility themselves for the state of the city. “It’s people dumping litter, not the council,” one source said.
There is also an awareness that cleaning the city ahead of dignitaries arriving will raise uncomfortable questions about why litter wasn’t dealt with earlier – although Covid clearly exacerbated problems. “We can’t be seen to clean up for Joe Biden and not the people,” a source said.
Aitken thinks “local government in the UK isn’t strong compared to Europe or America”. Would she like to see Scotland move towards that more muscular mayoral system? “Yes,” she says. She wants councils to have powers which “allow us to raise revenues in the way that’s most appropriate for whichever local government area”.
A city of protest
PERHAPS Aitken’s toughest challenge will come amid the inevitable protests accompanying COP26. “It’s going to be a big test, but the overriding principle is the right to freedom of expression,” she points out.
As a former CND protester, Aitken is happy to “create space” for organisations like Extinction Rebellion – known, she says, for “disruptive tactics” – to “make their voices heard” as long as they “respect the people who live here. They’re not the cause of climate change – don’t leave them with a legacy of destruction”.
Glasgow, she says, “has long been a city of protest”. However, there are limits. Referring to recent rioting by football fans, Aitken says: “I don’t think we should dignify what they were doing as protest.”
Following events in London where feminist demonstrators were treated more harshly than anti-lockdown protesters, Aitken believes policing “should be equitable” during COP26. “Perception is crucial. We need to retain the consent of the city,” she says.
“If there’s seen to be inequity, that’s a problem. I certainly don’t ever want us to be in a position where Glasgow is seen as the place where people protest legitimately – whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Reclaim the Night – and there’s a crackdown on them in the way we’ve seen in American cities.”
She believes the public backs her view. Council research shows that even though the majority of Glaswegians “are hacked off” with loyalist and republican demonstrations, “they support the right to march”.
After two hours spent painting her vision of Glasgow in the 21st century, Susan Aitken is off. She’s got work to do. Plenty of it.