Open for Business

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.