In isolation, it may not seem like that much of a big deal. But the news that council chiefs are “minded to grant” approval for revised plans to develop student accommodation in the former Marks & Spencer store on Sauchiehall Street may point the way to a brighter future for a troubled part of Glasgow city centre.

The closure of the long-established outlet, which had been a fixture on the street for nearly 100 years, was a major blow to an area already reeling from the impact of devastating fires and the seemingly terminal decline of the retail sector when it was announced in 2022. M&S was the latest in a series of major retailers to depart the street, following the exits of BHS and Watt Brothers, with the malaise compounded by blazes in the Victoria’s nightclub building and at Glasgow School of Art, and of course the many challenges which stemmed from the pandemic.

Developer Fusion Group saw its initial plans for the former M&S store refused by Glasgow City Council in November, amid concerns the proposals would be “harmful” to the surrounding conservation area and “contribute to an over-provision of student accommodation in the vicinity relative to mainstream residential accommodation”.

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But, after returning to the council with revised proposals, which included a reduction in the overall height of the building and an increase in its provision of affordable accommodation, as well as the retention of its original 1930s Art Deco facade, the project now seems set to go ahead.

“Having held longstanding ambitions to operate in the city, we are delighted to have reached this milestone, which will see £76 million of investment injected directly into Sauchiehall Street, at the heart of Glasgow city centre,” said Brodie Berman, senior acquisitions associate at Fusion, in a report in the Glasgow Times.

“Over the past 20 months, we have worked collaboratively with the council to develop a scheme that will make a positive impact on the local community, while also serving to address the shortfall of student beds in the city.

“Despite some challenges, our commitment to delivering a scheme that we truly believe will enhance Sauchiehall Street has been unfaltering, and we look forward to bringing our vision to life as we move to the construction phase of the project.”

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There are several reasons why this is good news for Glasgow and particularly at this juncture. For some time, the fortunes of the city have seemed to be at their lowest point for at least a generation. People who frequent the city centre for business and pleasure have become deeply concerned about its poor condition and state of repair, with the condition of Sauchiehall Street causing particular angst. The filthy pavements, gap sites and empty units which blight a once-thriving thoroughfare give an impression of decay and neglect.

Efforts are being made to improve the streetscape, but the extensive construction work currently taking place only appears to be making matters worse in the short term. It would be difficult to find any Glaswegian who would be against investment to improve the aesthetics of the street, but the timing seems to be far from perfect. At a time when businesses are desperate for more people to come into the city centre and spend money in restaurants and shops, why create barriers to this ambition?

The same can arguably be said of the introduction of policies such as the low-emission zone in the immediate post-Covid economy. There is also a clear logic to this plan, but does it need to happen now? Speak to most business groups and they will say what they need most of all right now is breathing space to rebuild after the challenges of the pandemic and (ongoing) cost of living crisis. Would it really have caused too much harm to have delayed the introduction of the LEZ or pushed the Avenues work back a couple of years, or at least phase the works more advantageously?

While these are questions which can legitimately be asked of the city council, the authority should get credit where it is due. That it has been collaborating with Fusion on its plans for the former M&S store shows its cognisance of the pressing need to bring a landmark site at the heart of Sauchiehall Street back to life, as well as an appreciation that Glasgow has an acute shortage of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).

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This was underlined in a report by property firm Savills last week, which revealed that Glasgow has the largest shortfall of PBSA in the UK. With both Glasgow and Edinburgh found to be facing a “considerable lack of supply” of this type of accommodation, the report warned that failure to address the deficit could harm the ambitions of the cities’ academic institutions, which is surely key to their long-term prosperity.

Savills analysed the PBSA market in 20 of the UK’s largest student cities, which include more than 1.3 million full-time students. It found that Glasgow needs an additional 22,000 beds to meet requirements for student accommodation in the city, while Edinburgh has a shortfall of 17,000.

Alex France, associate director in the development team at Savills Scotland, said: “Glasgow’s strength as an academic centre of excellence is not to be underestimated and its continued success is critical to the city’s economic prosperity.

“Providing sufficient high-quality PBSA to meet demand from students is imperative to maintain Glasgow’s national and global appeal, as well as helping alleviate pressure in the region’s private rented sector, which is suffering from severe supply shortages.”

It might be too much to hope the Fusion project will be the catalyst for the revival of Sauchiehall Street, but it is undeniably a step in the right direction. Equally encouraging, too, are ambitious plans revealed earlier this year to develop Charing Cross at the west end of the street, and to replace Buchanan Galleries with a bold, mixed-use development at the other.

None of these projects will bring the boost that such a key part of Glasgow needs in the immediate future. But hopefully they will be part of the bigger solution to the city’s revival in the longer term.