A Tale of Two City Centres: Edinburgh and Glasgow

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 9th 2017

Summer, Scotland 2017. Edinburgh comes alive and Glasgow has the start of the football season to look forward too. A tale of two cities and two very different experiences.

Edinburgh Festival Time. In the immediate weeks before hundreds of thousands of self-confessed culture vultures descend on the city it was announced that security barriers would go up in the city centre around the Royal Mile.

There was little warning, debate or ensuing controversy. A declaration was made and within days the barriers – which include high security gates, metal portals and concrete blocks – were erected to prevent vehicles hitting pedestrians. They even have a fancy sounding name – the National Barrier Asset (NBA) – and are deployed on request from, and paid for by, the UK Government. There was next to no comment let alone any queries or opposition. That seems somewhat noteworthy.

Apparently there have been ongoing discussions in public agencies including Police Scotland and Edinburgh City Council for quite a while. But a final decision to erect them for this year’s International Festival (which is marking its 70th anniversary) and Fringe wasn’t taken until a short while before the public announcement – which happened on the Police Scotland Facebook page. That might seem to be trying to present the public and Festival authorities with a fait accompli, but no one senior in the city has yet made this perfectly legitimate point.

Some of the barriers were quickly humanised by artists (this being Festival time) in bright colours, and as one cultural observer put it to me ‘They are probably less offensive than corporate branding for banks.’

Nowadays we live with a creeping acceptance of the securitisation of public spaces and places: with the public’s access to numerous previously open spaces careful controlled.

Sixteen years since the onset of ‘the war on terror’ and the battle with al-Qaeda, ISIS and radical Islam, there is now a familiarity and acquiescence with restricting movement and access to aid greater security. In the light of the recent two London and Manchester attacks the widespread view is that public spaces are seen as potential targets.

There was no ‘specific intelligence’ information that an attack on Edinburgh was likely or in the planning. Just a general sense of nervousness, mixed with worries in authorities that if anything did go wrong who would get the blame.

A sense of perspective and staying calm is missing from much of this. As repugnant and evil as the forces of radical Islamic terrorism are in the developed world, they are amateurs at the art of killing and maiming compared to the likes of the IRA, Baader-Meinhof and Red Army Faction in the 1970s. Figures for fatalities in Western Europe in the 1970s to mid-1980s show that these groups were much more of a threat and killed many more people than the current challenge from radical Islam.

Yet, whereas we didn’t turn our town centres and public places into security fortresses then, now we don’t give it a second thought. Or even in the case of Edinburgh think it worthy of comment or debate. Changing the nature of the world’s biggest cultural festival by putting part of it behind a security banner should at least be widely discussed and seen as a significant change. But no, it doesn’t seem to be on the evidence so far.

Travel west 46 miles to the city centre of Glasgow. At this time of year Glasgow and Edinburgh feel, even more than the rest of the year, completely different places marching to different beats.

Glasgow city centre like so many other in the UK has in the last year become characterised by rising numbers of homeless beggars. It isn’t an edifying sight – for the city centre, but most of all at the human level, for the plight of the people affected themselves.

This rising tide of human suffering has caused alarm in certain circles in the city. Not always though for the human aspect or the social suffering. For example Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce twice last week commented on this tragedy in ‘The Times’.

Firstly, in a news piece entitled ‘Beggars are ruining city centre shopping, says business leader’, Patrick was quoted and claimed that the rising number and visibility of beggars had a negative effect on businesses and was putting off shoppers. He commented that: ‘It is a problem if you are a retailer in a city centre outlet and you are comparing what you might get in an out-of-town shopping centre.’

The problem here was not why there were more beggars or whether there were ways of getting them appropriate support but, according to Patrick, about people being too kind and considerate: ‘You are better giving money to legitimate charities or ‘Big Issue’ sellers than giving directly on the street.’ He went on: ‘If you remove the incentive to stay on the streets, by not giving money directly to beggars, then you will eventually help to solve the problem.’

Secondly, the next day Patrick followed this up with an article, ‘The public are so generous that many beggars refuse help’ he went further, boldly declaring that ‘begging is not a sure sign of increased homelessness’ and that ‘the persistence of begging is not down to a lack of support from the authorities.’ Here he cited Glasgow city centre’s response team and the fact that a booklet has been produced called Eat, Sleep, Meet ‘that explains everything available.’ He seems to have missed the evidence from Eileen Marshall, Director of the Community Safety Glasgow, which first picked up business anxieties about begging who said last week that it was ‘a response to poverty, not a lifestyle choice.’

I asked Patrick whether he recognised that the rise in beggars was due to UK welfare cuts and whether he had any positive suggestions to deal with the problem, other than pointing out that in his view compassion was exasperating things.

He responded stating that: ‘In addition to the comments we have already made we stand ready to work with the authorities and with the many charitable bodies tackling the issue to help – if we can – to find a new solution.’ He also clarified that despite the first ‘Times’ piece saying ‘Beggars are ruining city centre shopping’ that: ‘We did not say that begging is ‘ruining’ the city centre.’

Two very different city centres. Two very different constituencies and worlds. The culturally connected and advantaged in one, and the economically and socially disadvantaged and disconnected in another. They have little in common beyond occurring in Scotland’s biggest cities at the same time.

There is one linking thread between the two. The two episodes reveal something about how we see and view public spaces, and in particular those of our largest and most successful city centres.

There is growing economic, social and cultural pressure to present these places to the world as safe, sanitised and open for business – but in a way that is deeply controlled and managed. Thus, the nature of how the public behave and who they are in what are public spaces has become deeply contentious and fraught with numerous tensions.

Nothing should be allowed to get in the way of the wheels of commerce, whether cultural or retail, particularly in these times of anxiety and competition: never mind the looming threat of Brexit and an economic downturn. Dubious multipliers are regularly trundled out to show for example the worth of Edinburgh’s Festivals to the city and country: at the last official estimate £313 million, but what isn’t asked is where this goes and who benefits? This is trickle down culture – an extension of the discredited economic model – but still the authorities cling to it for want of anything else.

Maybe there is also another commonality: who will speak in our current society against prevailing orthodoxies whether it is turning our city centres into mini-fortresses for the supposed benefit of our safety, and for the most vulnerable and threatened in our midst when they have fallen on hard times? On the evidence of this tale of two city centres, we cannot be too complacent and should never say as Glasgow Chamber have done that the problem is too much compassion.