Let Glasgow Flourish: The Case for a Metropolitan City Boundary, Ian R. Mitchell
Over the last fifteen years or so there has been a marked improvement in the built fabric of Glasgow. Change, however, has been uneven. While some areas have been transformed almost beyond recognition, the increase in poverty over the past ten years means others have declined further into ghetto-isation and marginalisation.The reasons are obvious. The economic crisis unleashed in 2008 by the collapse of the banking system has put into reverse many of the previous minimal gains made in the fight against poverty. But one thing that would help, and improve the city’s ability to tackle its social problems, would be the gaining of metropolitan status for Glasgow and the extension of the city’s boundaries to include its neighbouring areas and dormitory towns.
Glasgow’s Contribution to the Suburbs
Contrary to the stereotyped image of a parasitic city with its population living on benefits, Glasgow gives more, much more, to the rest of the Scottish and UK economy than it gets back financially. Glasgow’s contribution to Scotland’s business rates pool is much greater than it in turn receives back: it is subsidising the rest of Scotland in that regard. It is also subsidising the leafy suburbs that surround it: 50 per cent of Glasgow’s workplaces are occupied by people from these suburbs, and their wages go outwith the city to be spent.The increase in revenue the city would gain from including the rich suburbs within its boundaries would be a step in the right direction. Clydebank and Rutherglen should be part of Glasgow; so too should East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire, two of the richest parts of Scotland.This, with the addition of the other contiguous areas, would create a city of about one million people, which would be better able to deal with its social problems, and would be a much bigger hitter on the national and international stage.
Second City of the Empire
Nor would the move be without historical precedent. Just over a century ago, the districts of Govan, Partick, and several other neighbouring areas were incorporated into Glasgow. Local businesses and the middle classes, who resented Glasgow’s “municipal socialism”, had opposed the move, but the peripheral working-class population had supported it and the drive for a Greater Glasgow was favoured by the likes of John Maclean, who approved when his native Pollokshaws was added to the city in 1912.The move boosted Glasgow’s population by almost 250,000, creating a city of one million people which became the Second City of the Empire.
It was one of Europe’s 10 largest cities, and the only one – aside from Naples – which was not a capital. Back then, Glasgow produced half of the UK’s ships and locomotives for a worldwide market, and the vast wealth generated created a city with a built environment that few even capital cities could then match (even if not for the working-class people who created the wealth). Since then, Glasgow’s geographical expansion has tended to involve the acquisition of greenfield sites such as Easterhouse and Drumchapel, lands bought in the 1930s and built on in the post-war period. In 1974, parts of Lanarkshire, including Rutherglen and Cambuslang, were added to the city, but a further local government re-organisation in the 1990s gave most of these areas back. In over a century little more than the districts of Carmyle and Baillieston have been annexed by the city, at a time when population movements and the creation of new urban areas have shifted the demographic and built environment situation to far from what it was in 1912.
Big Cities are Big Hitters
Economic change has all but obliterated Glasgow’s heavy industry. As the middle classes moved to the suburbs, and much of the skilled working-class were decanted to new towns such as East Kilbride and Cumbernauld, Glasgow’s population plummeted to 600,000. It is now rising again, but its prospects could be much improved if political boundaries matched demographic reality. Big cities are big hitters. Small may be beautiful, but small is also ineffectual, lacking the ability to achieve economies of scale or to maintain a high profile, nationally and internationally. The creation of a metropolitan Greater Glasgow would undoubtedly be beneficial to the city. There are two models. One is to incorporate the areas that are immediately adjacent, such as Clydebank, Rutherglen, Renfrew, Bearsden and Milngavie; this would give a city once again with a population approaching a million.
First Second City of Europe
The other model – which Berlin adopted after the First World War, doubling its population overnight – is to also include the economically and socially connected satellite settlements, such as Coatbridge. A metropolitan area encompassing the whole conurbation makes sense, and also carries the solution far further into the future than simply absorbing the neighbouring areas at this present time. This latter model would – like Berlin – effectively double Glasgow’s population. After almost a century in the doldrums of decline, Glasgow is beginning to re-emerge as a great world city. As its economic, artistic and other achievements are increasingly recognised, it is becoming what might be termed the First Second City of Europe.
A city with a rich past and a vibrant living present
In my 2013 book A Glasgow Mosaic: Explorations Around The City’s Urban Icons, I argue that no non-capital city in western or central Europe has had the impact on history that Glasgow has, economically, scientifically or culturally. In my view, it is an unanswerable case. But Glasgow is not merely using past glories to underwrite its present existence. Since the turn of the millennium, when it was designated European City of Culture 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design 1999, Glasgow has received numerous accolades: UNESCO City of Music; Pollok Park as Europe’s best in 2008; the Riverside Museum recognised as Europe’s Best in 2013; awarded European City of the Year by the Academy of Urbanism in 2011 …This is a city with a rich past and a vibrant living present. Tourists flock here, students choose to study in the city, creative people base themselves here. But Glasgow could do better, if bigger.
A bigger city has a bigger impact, a higher profile and makes geographic sense
A bigger city has a bigger impact, a higher profile. Its greater population gives it a greater revenue, a larger pool of talent. The creation of a metropolitan Glasgow makes geographic sense.The current boundaries are absurd. The westernmost part of Shawfield Stadium is less than a mile-and-a-half from George Square, yet it’s not in Glasgow but in South Lanarkshire. A train journey from Bishopbriggs to George Square takes a mere six minutes; yet the train is boarded in East Dunbartonshire. When you pass Glasgow Airport in the car, you have to drive over two miles through built-up areas till you hit the city limits. Extending the boundaries – which in my view should include everything within a 12-mile radius from George Square – would allow more coherent planning over the conurbation.
Justice – The poorest local authority in Scotland subsidises its wealthier neighbours
It would also provide a modest contribution to social justice. The city provides – and underwrites – the occupational, recreational and cultural core of the whole Clydeside region of almost 1.5 million people, and those in the periphery use the facilities of Glasgow, either owned or part-financed by the council, in a way that does not apply in reverse. People in Maryhill don’t use facilities in Bearsden; people in Bearsden use Glasgow facilities like Kelvingrove Museum or the Mitchell Library. But most tellingly, 50% of all jobs in Glasgow are held by people who live outside the city. They live off the city but do not contribute to its council tax base. The poorest local authority in Scotland subsidises its wealthier neighbours.
Glasgow’s constricted boundaries also help to create a constricted view of the city
Glasgow’s constricted boundaries also help to create a constricted view of the city; as a result of the current boundary gerrymander, scribblers are able to churn out statistics that re-enforce the No Mean City image: the high rates of poverty, mortality, unemployment and low educational achievement we hear of so often, and which distort the bigger picture. Factor in the educational statistics of East Renfrewshire and the life expectancy of East Dunbartonshire, and a truer picture of the greater Glasgow region emerges which is closer on these counts to other big post-industrial cities, and not some special basket-case. A metropolitan Glasgow would help to put a stake in the heart of this negative profiling through lies and damned statistics.
The peripheral areas round Glasgow would benefit from being part of a greater metropolitan unit
Local pride and parochial sentiment might rail against this, but the heart shouldn’t rule the head, and the peripheral areas round Glasgow would benefit from being part of a greater metropolitan unit. People come to Glasgow to see its historical and cultural treasures.They don’t come to the peripheral areas, which is a pity as these have as rich a history and built environment as all but the best areas of Glasgow itself. As part of a larger unit these places would benefit from being on the metropolitan Glasgow map, literally and metaphorically.
If Glasgow itself were bigger, the revival of its fortunes as a city of culture, education and tourism could be spread far more widely
Tourism is now Glasgow’s second industry, but few come to the west of Scotland to visit Coatbridge or Clydebank – though they should. Summerlee industrial museum in Coatbridge should rival the Riverside Museum as a heritage draw; right now, it comes nowhere near doing so. Peripheral areas do not attract the best talent, since creative people want to come to a creative city; tourists don’t go to the periphery, and incomers with skills don’t apply for jobs there. But if Glasgow itself were bigger, the revival of its fortunes as a city of culture, education and tourism could be spread far more widely. Of course, this would mean that the richer areas currently outwith the city would have to pay more for the upkeep of a greater Glasgow. But many of their residents were born and educated in the city. They use Glasgow’s facilities, and one would hope they would come to accept the idea as being socially just.
A metropolitan Glasgow would also be good for Scotland as a whole
A metropolitan Glasgow would also be good for Scotland as a whole. The richness and economic dominance of Edinburgh, whose rise throughout the last century paralleled Glasgow’s decline, risks there developing a London-effect north of the Border, with the capital soaking up the bulk of the country’s wealth, power and influence. This is especially true since devolution (and would be even more true with outright independence), and the creation of additional governmental powers in the capital. A metropolitan Glasgow could act as a counterbalance to any potential tendency for Edinburgh to become the London of the north. As an historian I know that what is rational and desirable does not always happen. Many obstacles lie on the path to a metropolitan Dear Green Place, and these are not just issues of local patriotism, which I understand, or local selfishness, which sadly I also understand, but of political will.
The argument for a metropolitan Glasgow has to be made
At any rate, a metropolitan Glasgow should have its own local tax-raising powers and not in future be subject to the possible interventions of a politically-hostile Scottish government, of whatever hue. The political will that was there a century ago would appear to be lacking at present, and this hamstrings Glasgow’s attempts to re-invent itself, adds to the economic and cultural difficulties of the satellite regions, and benefits only the middle-class enclaves that remain outwith the city, yet are almost wholly dependent on it. Nevertheless, the argument for a metropolitan Glasgow has to be made, for the benefit not just of Glasgow, but of Scotland as a whole.
Ian R. Mitchell, October, 2019
Ian R Mitchell has written widely on Glasgow and its history, most recently in his Walking Through Glasgow’s Industrial Past, (Luath Press, 2015) which covers the historical and built heritage of the city’s working-class areas
(Photographs by Jim Byrne, unless otherwise accredited)
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