It is now nearly a year since the last mandatory pandemic restriction on mask-wearing was lifted in Scotland and so perhaps now is a suitable moment to ask how well Glasgow’s heavily-damaged city centre is recovering. On the very visible evidence of Sauchiehall Street’s empty units the answer would be not well, but together the activity data and the recent work of the City Council suggest a brighter future.

The activity data shows not just a recovery but also a significant change in the role our city centre is playing. We are using our centre less for work and shopping and more for socialising.

The local street counter figures for February prove that footfall has almost reached 2019 levels, sitting just eight per cent behind.

The biggest disparity is still for weekdays with Monday to Friday lunchtime footfall between 10% and 15% below pre-pandemic levels. Working from home is the main reason. Oddly the local data available on daily office use suggests that Glasgow is well below the national average. Rail patronage at Central Station tends to support that evidence; it’s well down on both pre-pandemic levels and the performance of comparable UK stations. Why Glasgow’s return to the office is so unusual is not yet fully clear.

On the other hand footfall in the evenings and at weekends is reported to be around 20% ahead of pre-pandemic levels. Credit card spending data also show a strong recovery with the year to the end of February growing by 22% – ahead of Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds. Annual spend is now nearly 25% ahead of where it was pre-pandemic but the mix of that spend has shifted away from general retail to food and drink.

Read more: Government must reset its relationship with business

The response of the city council has been encouraging; the importance of the city centre to the health of the city’s economy has been fully recognised and work to help change the centre’s role is under way. The council established a City Centre Taskforce in November 2020 which I have the responsibility of co-chairing alongside Councillor Angus Millar and its work on both short-term recovery and longer-term reshaping has been financially supported by the Scottish Government.

Extra resources were made available to tackle anti-social behaviour through Police Scotland and to reduce graffiti and litter. If the view persists that our city centre is filthy it is not through lack of effort by council staff. Sisyphus himself would have long given up attempting to clear up the mess we leave behind in our own civic front room.

While the work on recovery must continue, action plans for re-designing our centre are now taking precedence. City council planning and development policies on empty units, the future for the former Golden Z, the residential strategy to double the city centre population and the support needed for the biggest private sector investment projects are all in progress. Council leader Susan Aitken gave a very positive signal in her speech at November’s State of the Economy conference for the investment proposals from Landsec at Buchanan Galleries, Sovereign Centros at the St Enoch Centre and for Bruntwood Scitech at the Met Tower. That makes an impact.

Not every idea emerging from the council is as popular with Chamber members. Last week’s council vote on the future of the M8 has caused bemusement at best. A suggestion that in due course the motorway as it passes through the city centre should become some form of boulevard would leave the logistics industry justifiably confused about how this helps with the efficient distribution of goods through key hubs like Greenock Ocean Terminal, Glasgow Airport or the Mossend rail freight terminal. There is a balance to be struck in the current policy battle with the private motor car and the M8 proposals appear to go well beyond the tipping point.

Nevertheless enough work is being done to rejuvenate our city centre and we know that task will not be complete until those empty Sauchiehall Street units are filled.

Stuart Patrick is chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce