PLANS for a major investment by one of Glasgow’s longest-established firms sparked a flicker of hope that there could be a brighter future for the beleaguered city centre.

Laings, the esteemed family-owned jeweller, is proposing to invest £5 million to transform the B-listed Rowan House on Buchanan Street, on which it has just signed a 15-year lease.

Under plans submitted to Glasgow City Council, Laings would occupy all five storeys of the 19th-century building, where it currently has a presence on the second and third floors.

The centrepiece would be a showroom, and there would be a raft of new attractions, including a new workshop for watchmakers and goldsmiths (whom shoppers would be able to observe at work), and a hospitality area on the fifth floor. Experts from the jeweller’s other showrooms in the city would move to the new base.

The project marks a bold move for a Glasgow company that was established in 1840 and has had a retail presence in the city since 1939. And it offers an encouraging sign that retailers still see the city as a destination worth committing to, despite the damage arising from the pandemic and the impact on the high street from the rise of online shopping.

No business thrives for nearly two centuries without being sound in its risk-taking, so there is obviously good reason to conclude that Laings has anchored its plans on solid financial projections.

And if it is a good move for Laings there is a fair chance it will be a good move for Glasgow city centre as a whole.

The city centre has toiled badly in the aftermath of the pandemic, which has exerted a particularly heavy toll on the retail sector. This is none more evident than on Sauchiehall Street, which is scarred by a procession of empty shops.

There has long been debate over how to restore the fortunes of Glasgow city centre, with observers accepting that it will not be revived by the retail sector alone. That may well be true, but it would be wrong to suggest that retail will not play a part in its regeneration.

If anything, the best retailers will find ways to adapt to the new trading circumstances. That has been implicitly recognised by Laings, which is looking to enhance the consumer experience as part of its plans for Rowan House, not just the opportunity to view and buy jewellery.

Like its contemporary Hamilton & Inches in Edinburgh, which recently invested £3m to revamp its flagship jewellery store on Edinburgh’s George Street, Laings is looking to provide that extra level of customer care and attention that cannot be replicated when viewing pieces of jewellery online.

A desire to provide new experiences in Glasgow is also on the agenda at Land Securities, owner of the Buchanan Galleries.

Earlier this year, Landsec unveiled plans to knock down the 20-year-old shopping centre and replace it with a mixed-use development, comprising residential and hotel accommodation, offices, and hospitality and retail offers.

Similar plans have been hatched by Sovereign Centros, which wants to radically reshape the St Enoch shopping centre in Glasgow and replace it with something bigger and broader in scale. Under proposals revealed last week, Sovereign aims to create a mixed-use development at the site, taking in entertainment, leisure, offices, homes and a hotel, as well as retail.

Real estate developers like Sovereign and Landsec are astute enough to know the future of major cities lies not in retail alone, but in creating attractive environments where people want to live, work, shop and play. The importance of providing attractive homes in the city has long been emphasised by Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and the local council, which are convinced of the need to persuade more people to live within the boundaries of the city centre.

If Scotland’s towns and cities are to find a renewed sense of purpose it will require the buy-in of and collaboration between the private and public sector, a point acknowledged by the Scottish Government last when it published its joint response with Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) to the ambitious New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres report. Their response highlights the role of national and local government as an “enabler”, working to support communities and businesses.

And it raises the prospect of some interesting state-led interventions. These include a commitment to exploring a digital sales tax to help level the playing field between online and bricks and mortar retailers, and to modernise the compulsory purchase system to help speed up infrastructure, development and regeneration projects. It also talks about engaging with the UK Government to review how the value-added tax (VAT) system is applied with regard to refurbishing existing buildings, to incentivise investment and contribute to the net-zero drive.

Such proposals sound encouraging, and may make a crucial difference in the long term, as would the plans envisaged by the likes of Laings, Landsec and Sovereign Centros. But solutions are also needed to help revive Scotland’s town and city centres in the short term.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Retail Consortium highlighted its concern that the business rates burden is higher in Scotland than it is in England.

It said the poundage – the figure multiplied by the value of a non-domestic property to calculate its rates bill – is set to rise in Scotland to 49.8p in the pound, the joint-highest level since devolution began in 1999.

It also voiced concern over the reintroduction of the higher property rate surtax in Scotland, which it said lifts the level of rates to 52.4p in the pound for around 3,000 premises in Scotland.

This, the SRC notes, is higher than in England, where there is a standard poundage or multiplier of 51.2p in the pound, and a lower rate of 49.9p for small businesses.

It is also worth highlighting that relief from business rates for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors in Scotland, brought in to support firms through the pandemic, will end in less than three months’ time, even though the economic effects of the crisis continue to be felt, and we are now slap bang in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Public finances are under pressure because of the pandemic, but further relief around rates would help firms navigate the difficult months that lie ahead.