THESE days politicians like to be seen to have conversations with us, the great unwashed electorate, about policy changes that may be unpopular, costly and/or downright inconvenient, and the latest “chat” sought by Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken is about George Square.

Ms Aitken has described the square, which is currently shut to traffic on three sides for the duration of the European Championships, as a “glorified roundabout” for drivers in search of non-existent parking spaces. And she is keen for the closures, which have allowed the square to host cultural events, to become permanent, advocating “a proper chance to look again at how we use this treasured space”.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never understood why the city has squandered so many opportunities over the years to make George Square the vibrant civic and cultural centre it deserves to be, a proper destination with food, drink, live music and shopping where people meet, congregate, socialise and spend money a la Prague, Munich and Brussels. And I wish Ms Aitken every success in her efforts to persuade others of the merits of such a plan.

But at the same time any new debate about George Square must not be allowed to overshadow or act as a smoke screen for the far more pressing action needed to prevent the wider city centre slipping further into the sort of dire urban decay it is impossible to come back from.

Let’s be brutally honest: to say Glasgow is not looking its best at the moment is a laughable understatement.

The devastating fires at Glasgow School of Art and Victoria’s, further down Sauchiehall Street, have left ugly, brutal scars that will take many years and an eye-watering level of investment to heal. Indeed, the recent lifting of some of the cordon restrictions surrounding the bottom end of the site only reiterates the daunting scale of the work needed to improve and rejuvenate the whole area. The sizeable gap site in the block is like an unsightly missing front tooth, while the empty BHS site opposite had already deteriorated into a prime gathering place for the increasing and depressing number of rough sleepers in this part of the city centre.

Up and down Hope Street and Renfrew Street the pollution-causing buses chug, past other decaying buildings and shells (not least the rotting disgrace that is Alexander Greek Thomson’s once beautiful Egyptian Halls), passing overflowing bins and bags of corporate recycling left out on the rainy pavements. In the nearby Merchant City more sizeable gap sites persist, despite endless false dawns, including the Trongate site left empty by Goldbergs’ demise 20 years ago.

Go west along the river and you’ll see a hotchpotch of development, wasteland and missed opportunity that literally only takes you so far – Glasgow must be one of the few cities in Europe where it’s not possible to walk or cycle right along the banks.

The urban realm of Glasgow is deteriorating through fire, desertion and neglect in a quite ghastly way, and what is most alarming is the seeming lack of a strategic plan to reverse it.

Don’t get me wrong, despite challenging economic times Glasgow’s gradual and miraculous transformation from dirty industrial behemoth to cultural gem over the last 30 years has continued, and it is now a vibrant and enviable global music and visual arts hub. Indeed, it’s hard to keep up these days with the sheer number of festivals, events and international conferences that crowd the calendar and enrich all our lives, both in terms of access to culture and the economic boost it brings.

And that cultural capital is certainly being reflected in the visitor numbers. Indeed, figures for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) only last week showed a 20 per cent hike in tourists to Glasgow last year – the majority from Europe and North America - a growth level that out-performed the Scottish average and saw expenditure increase by more than a third, to £319m. Students flock to our top universities, meanwhile, bringing with them a considerable economic whack, populating the city centre.

But we must be so careful not to become complacent. Glasgow is famously gallus on the surface, but a more fragile and sensitive soul lives beneath. Tourism makes us feel good about ourselves as Glaswegians, helps us to hold our own when being compared to our prosperous Edinburgh cousins. We can now say with conviction that we have a deeper, more diverse and arguably more vibrant tourist offer than the capital.

But it is potentially more transient than Edinburgh’s too, and if visitors leave our city after the European Championships telling tales of what a dump it is, next year’s tourist figures could be very different indeed. With this in mind, I urge Ms Aitken to start another conversation, one that faces up to more pressing civic issues. If we don’t act now to save, improve and protect our wider urban heritage we risk squandering the hard-won progress of the last 30 years and the future prosperity of our citizens. That would surely be an unforgivable tragedy.