THE scale of the challenges facing our city and town centres was thrown into stark relief when walking in Glasgow around lunchtime on a recent weekday.

Of course, many or most of us will have been long aware of these challenges. They have been grimly apparent ever since it became clear that the dramatic and entirely unfamiliar move into lockdown in spring last year as the coronavirus pandemic took hold was, sadly, not going to be something that arrived and passed in a matter of a few short weeks.

Things have obviously moved on since the weekdays in spring last year when Glasgow Central station was deserted at what would otherwise have been the morning rush hour, as train services continued to run for essential workers amid strict lockdown measures necessary to save many thousands of lives.

However, while the days when the station and Glasgow’s streets were deserted might seem almost like a distant memory now, the problem of reviving our town and city centres looks in many ways far more challenging than it did then.

This vexing puzzle has, of course, understandably been the subject of much study and deliberation.

The revival of physical retail with the ending this spring of the very protracted lockdown that ran from midwinter, with the reopening of so-called non-essential shops in Scotland from April 26, has helped bring people back into town and city centres in numbers.

Crucially, however, footfall continues to be depressed because so many people who would normally be working in town and city centres are continuing to operate remotely. This is an obvious situation but worth highlighting again because it remains at the heart of the problem. In life, identifying the nature of a challenge often leads to a straightforward solution, but this is not such a scenario.

The appetite of consumers to visit shops and restaurants again continues to appear very and perhaps surprisingly strong, which is good news in terms of recovery, with many people keen to do all the things they were unable to do for so long and previously took for granted.

And a visit to some out-of-town shopping centres, such as Silverburn on the south side of Glasgow, will leave many people with the impression that much is back to normal. The centre is busy in peak periods, and the hustle and bustle of the fast-food outlets and cinema also looks a lot like it did before the pandemic.

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In contrast, you are struck instantly with how different Glasgow city centre is from its pre-pandemic times on a weekday lunchtime, with the absence of so many thousands of office workers. There are reasonable numbers of enthusiastic shoppers, and some restaurants look quite busy, but the central streets are much, much quieter than usual, and have a very different feel indeed to them.

Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, has been among those highlighting the urgency of the challenges facing city centres.

He wrote in The Herald earlier this month: “[Glasgow] City Council’s own city-centre footfall study for June stood at just 53% of the same measure in June 2019. That largely agrees with the mobile phone data from the Centre for Cities which highlighted how low footfall was outside the weekend as office staff continued to work from home.”

In a general sense, out-of-town shopping centres too have faced major footfall challenges. The British Retail Consortium and Sensormatic IQ’s latest UK figures showed footfall in July was down sharply on levels in the same month of 2019 across various types of shopping destinations. However, it is far easier to see a straightforward road back to normality for the more modern out-of-town shopping centres, especially those including cinemas and food outlets given the latest easing of restrictions, than for town and city centres. That is not to say even these shopping centres will not face major challenges in filling vacated and sometimes very large units, but rather to observe that they look to face fewer major challenges than town and city centres.

Mr Patrick also noted research by the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute showing only around two-thirds of staff who operated full-time in the workplace pre-pandemic are expected to return to that arrangement, with more than one-fifth adopting hybrid working practices. Around one in ten of those who were previously full-time in workplaces are expected to operate wholly from home in future, the research showed.

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And, while many shops have reopened successfully, the Scottish Retail Consortium has highlighted the fact that sales remain significantly adrift of pre-pandemic levels.

The SRC’s most recent survey, published last week, was a mixed bag.

It showed the value of Scottish retail sales in July was up by 7.4 per cent on the same month of last year. However, sales value last month in Scotland was down 4.4% on July 2019.

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, head of policy and external affairs at the SRC, said: “July saw retail sales improve on 2020’s rather desperate performance, which came in the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown, but remain below pre-pandemic trading. Indeed, the 4.4 per cent fall compared to 2019 was disappointing after two months when there seemed to be a path back to growth. It seems Scottish retailers have a longer wait in store.”

And he made no bones about the challenges ahead for the sector, noting footfall figures had been negative for a while and pointing to challenges in terms of increased shop vacancies, while also underlining another major hurdle for the sector in the form of supply-chain pressures.

Mr MacDonald-Russell said: “Despite last month’s sunshine, there must be worry there are storm clouds ahead for the Scottish retail industry. With parts of the supply chains under pressure from rising commodity and haulage costs, the stresses on operational models are only increasing. If there isn’t an August bump in retail sales from the relaxation of restrictions it may be a long winter for Scottish shops.”

The next few months will provide further crucial information which will enable policy-makers to form a more precise idea about the scale and nature of the challenges facing town and city centres, although much is evident on this front already.

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Employers are beginning, to greater or lesser extents, to encourage and in some cases it appears apply pressure on staff to return to offices, at least on a hybrid working basis.

However, what is plain is that any “V”-shape in terms of a return to full-time, office-based working, which might have been expected in the early weeks of the pandemic, has not occurred, nor will it now.

All going well from a public-health perspective, and there are many uncertainties on this front, we will see increasing numbers of people return to town and city centres.

However, there is undoubtedly, whatever the exact numbers, going to be a huge element of hybrid working, and some employers have given their staff the option of operating remotely on a permanent basis, no doubt recognising some productivity gains amid the pandemic.

So it will not be the same as it was before. And there is no particular sign that hybrid working will evolve for many people into being based full-time in the office again once the pandemic has passed.

Many of the huge challenges facing town and city centres are rooted in altered habits, although the situation was not plain sailing before the pandemic.

The physical retail sector too is facing huge headwinds from changed patterns of behaviour. Online retailing boomed during the lockdowns and, while the return of consumers to shops will hopefully have been relatively heartening to operators of physical outlets, there will clearly be some permanent change of buying habits.

Sadly, we have already seen huge numbers of shop closures announced. And this will be an enormous challenge for town and city centres which were already struggling very significantly on this front before the pandemic struck.

Mr Patrick had in the pre-pandemic days emphasised the importance to Glasgow, against the changing backdrop at that stage, of attracting more people to live in the city centre. We have seen a significant number of proposed major city-centre housing developments going through the planning process amid the pandemic. The proportion of these which actually go ahead in the short term will have a significant bearing on the city’s fortunes as it attempts to recover from the pandemic’s massive economic impact.

There is also a likelihood that people returning to work on a hybrid basis may follow different patterns even on the days when they are in town and city centres, perhaps working remotely early and late in the day because this is more productive. If this occurs, it would present another major challenge for the likes of city-centre bars, restaurants and hotels which in the pre-pandemic times were often bustling with office staff drinking and dining at the end of their working days.

The thing that is clearest from a walk around Glasgow city centre on a weekday lunchtime is just how far away things are from the pre-pandemic situation.

While the ghostly atmosphere of the first lockdown might be long gone, there seemed to be more hope at that stage that things might return to normality sooner rather than later.

That hope has now evaporated.

The road ahead looks very difficult for town and city centres the length and breadth of the UK. Many other countries will face similar challenges with their urban areas.

It is a situation which will need to be addressed urgently by policy-makers as we emerge from the pandemic.