TWO events connected to the retail industry last week shone a light on the past and the future of one of Scotland’s most important sectors, and of town and city centres in general.

It emerged last week that upmarket retailer John Lewis Partnership had appointed Savills to find a buyer for the freehold of its former department store in Aberdeen that had closed its doors permanently in August. The building was home to one of eight “financially challenged” shops shuttered by John Lewis last year as it responded to the turmoil inflicted by the pandemic, and the decision offered further evidence of just how difficult it is for the department store model to flourish in the new, online-driven retail landscape.

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The collapse of Debenhams, the historic department store chain that was liquidated last year after its long-running travails, is another case in point.

Just as the for-sale sign was hoisted by John Lewis in Aberdeen, plans were unveiled in Glasgow for what could be the biggest shake-up in the city centre for decades. Land Securities, the commercial property giant, tabled radical proposals that could result in Buchanan Galleries, arguably the premier shopping centre in central Glasgow for the last two decades, being demolished and replaced with a brand new “mixed-use urban neighbourhood”.

The new project envisages shops, homes, offices, hotel accommodation and hospitality outlets being developed across an extended area, including the void above Queen Street Station.

The plans, which Landsec will put out for public consultation, provide perhaps the clearest sign yet that Glasgow, for years celebrated as the UK’s second shopping city behind London, is looking beyond retail as its key source of vitality.

For many who have observed, and lamented, the decline of the city centre in recent years, the prospect of such radical ideas to re-energise Glasgow will have been warmly embraced. For too long it has seemed that the battle to revive the city centre might be lost, as a procession of big-name shops and restaurants have closed their doors – a trend that has been super-charged by the pandemic. The decision by Marks & Spencer to close its long-standing store on Sauchiehall Street, just days before the Landsec news, seemed indicative of the malaise.

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However, the fact that Landsec is seemingly prepared to demolish a building that has only been there since 1999, and which remains one of the more attractive places for shoppers in Glasgow, and start again is a sure sign it believes the city can still have a bright, if different, future.

The proposals, which Landsec envisages coming to fruition over a 10-year horizon, have been welcomed by Glasgow City Council, and Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. Indeed Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber, declared that Landsec’s ambitions have the potential to be “transformational for the city at this incredibly challenging time”.

“As a valued long-term investor in the city, we look forward to them bringing forward innovative plans that could position Glasgow in the vanguard of Covid recovery,” he said.

That recovery was given a boost on Tuesday, when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon signalled an end to the work-from-home directive from this Monday (January 31).

The gradual return of office workers will certainly be embraced by the many city centre businesses – shops, bars, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers and other service providers – that have been starved of customers for nearly two years, especially now that the majority of coronavirus restrictions have been lifted. “The lack of office workers has been starkly obvious if you have been in the city midweek,” said David Davidson, chairman of property firm Cushman & Wakefield in Scotland.

“This has badly impacted shops, cafes and restaurants – many of which have not re-opened. Most office workers like being in a lively city centre and enjoying the benefits of social interaction with their work colleagues, and the learning and collaboration in an office, all of which are hard to do remotely.”

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Noting that the city has also been affected by the ongoing absence of tourists, Mr Davidson told The Herald: “The impact of this lack of city centre activity is clear to see. We desperately need investment in the core – particularly the retail streets where there are gap sites, and decaying buildings.”

The promise of further investment, too, by St Enoch Centre owner Sovereign Centros to develop modern office space and a rooftop restaurant in the former Debenhams department store on Argyle Street will have added to the optimism that has unexpectedly lifted the city this week. As perhaps did also the revelation of the Scottish Government’s blueprint for revolutionising transport over the next two decades, which includes plans for a new metro system in Glasgow.

The prospect of such major investment will surely go down well with anyone who has the best interests of the city at heart. It is certainly encouraging that such confidence is being shown in the future of a city that was already experiencing problems before the pandemic arrived.

However, while it is always important to look to the long term and to plan for future generations, Glasgow and indeed other urban locations around Scotland are facing serious economic challenges in the here and now.

The announcement from the First Minister that businesses can prepare to resume hybrid working, in effect a combination of home and office working, from Monday is a welcome step in the quest to rebuild town and city centre footfall. But it is likely to be a long haul, especially when no one knows for sure how the pandemic may evolve.

It remains to be seen whether employers will continue to offer their staff the chance to work flexibly and divide their time between home and the office, or whether they begin to insist on a return to full-time attendance in the workplace. Such decisions will, in the long run, determine how many people come into Glasgow each day, which in turn will affect the ability of service providers such as bars and shops to thrive in the city centre. That will also have an influence on business investment decisions.

The fall-out from coronavirus has had a scarring effect on city centres such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, where streets are pockmarked by an array of empty units. The return of office workers and the lifting of restrictions in hospitality and nightclubs will naturally restore some vibrancy, but there is no doubt that some thinking will have to be done to find new uses for the many vacant sites we now see.

It will naturally be hoped that the plans for Buchanan Galleries and elsewhere in Glasgow will have a halo effect, and perhaps draw other businesses into their orbit.

But proposals such as the Buchanan Galleries revamp do not come without risk. People may not lament the disappearance of the current Buchanan Galleries building, but the development of the new project could destabilise a part of the city that many may think will have a key role to play in Glasgow's recovery from Covid.

No doubt Landsec has done its calculations, and will perhaps have been looking at Edinburgh, where the development of the new St James Quarter certainly appears to have caught the imagination.

It will certainly be fascinating to see how the proposals, and other major investment plans, unfold in the months and years ahead.