Once, a visit to Sauchiehall Street was imbued with pomp and ceremony.

It lit up a million west of Scotland childhoods and provided those moments signifying the onset of adulthood: a first faltering date; your first chaotic attempt at buying your own clothes; the edgy glamour of your first night on the town. 

You got off the bus at Buchanan Street, or stepped from a train at Queen Street and proceeded up this Victorian avenue where you knew that afternoon tea in the Littlewoods café was your reward for being calm and obedient as your mum and gran shopped at C&A.

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You might even be permitted to visit Lumley’s sports shop and gaze longingly at the Barcelona and Brazil tops. 

In later years it would be HMV and the Virgin shop for AC/DC and Iron Maiden and doomed attempts at recovering your poise by getting served alcohol underage in Nico’s after a nervous afternoon with a girl at the ABC cinema.

The Herald: Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow as building works continueSauchiehall Street in Glasgow as building works continue (Image: Robert Perry)

Later still it was Victoria’s, Maestro’s, Joe Pap’s and the Cotton Club.  

Now, you avoid Sauchiehall Street if you can. One by one, the big destination shops have disappeared, made extinct by virtual shopping or consumed by fires (accidental or otherwise).

Now you’re greeted by a 10ft wide trench encased in aluminium fencing that continues on up to Rose Street. Eventually, this ditch will become something called The Avenues. 

You might have heard of The Avenues project. In Councilese, it’s part of a wider network of “attractive, accessible, safe and sustainable (of course) routes throughout the city centre being delivered through the Glasgow City Region City Deal-funded Avenues programme”.

It’s intended to be people-focused and be more appealing to residents, workers, visitors and investors. This assumes that there will be a sufficiency of residents, workers, visitors and investors to appreciate this £6m project. Right now, you’d tell visitors to avert their eyes.  

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And why start ripping up the street during the festive period as retailers are seeking increased footfall?  

Just as the Sauchiehall Street trench ends you walk past the corrugated, graffitied expanse that used to be the beautiful ABC cinema. By this point you’re approaching 20 in the number of empty shop fronts and decide to stop counting because it will just cause further distress.

In a bid to ease the pain you look up to remind yourself of the architectural splendour, now flaking, which runs above the hollowed out shells. 

In the space of a few years Sauchiehall Street lost dozens of small shops following the two art school fires. Another blaze took the building that housed Victoria’s nightclub. A derelict, overgrown wasteland has been left unattended.

Marks & Spencer has gone and so too has BHS and, behind it, Watt Brothers. The imposing Bank of Scotland building on the corner of Blythswood Street has been empty for years. 

The Herald: MSP Paul Sweeney with writer Kevin McKenna as they discuss the current perilous state of Sauchiehall Street, GlasgowMSP Paul Sweeney with writer Kevin McKenna as they discuss the current perilous state of Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow (Image: Robert Perry)

The old Watt Brothers shop was once used as a setting for a department store in bleak, communist-era Czechoslovakia in John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Sauchiehall Street in its entirety could now pass for a dystopian Zombie apocalypse flick. Especially if the zombies liked vaping, sun-tans and fast food. 

Paul Sweeney, Labour MSP for Glasgow, shares my sorrow at what has befallen our beloved street. He shows me maps and architectural drawings made in the 1970s which outline bold and ambitious plans for the city centre and, Sauchiehall Street in particular.

“There was a lot of visionary thinking back then,” he says. “They’re far more developed than the current nebulous, 30-year plans for the multi-transit Clyde Metro. 

I hadn’t known that a station and platform had been envisaged on West Regent Street with an underground walkway emerging on to Sauchiehall Street across from Marks & Spencer.

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“It’s very ambitious stuff,” says Mr Sweeney. Could it still be developed, I ask. “Certainly, but it requires big thinking. The Clyde Metro is airy and gaseous stuff, especially when – after nearly 25 years of the Scottish parliament – Scotland’s largest city doesn’t even have an airport link.”  

It’s too easy to lay the Sauchiehall Street apocalypse entirely at the door of the city council. A perfect storm of fires, Covid, the cost of living crisis and altered shopping patterns has hit this street harder than any other of Glasgow’s retail domains. 

And whoever thought it was a good idea to build the sprawling Fort retail park at one end of Glasgow’s M8 stretch and Silverburn at the other needs their head examined. As well as wrecking small retail enterprises in Paisley and Glasgow’s east end they’ve also undermined the city centre retail economy. But the city, it seems, has been shorn of the tools to fight back. 

The devolved era hasn’t been kind to Glasgow. When the SNP came into government they cancelled the Crossrail project and the airport rail link. 

This end of Strathclyde region and the growth of the administration in Holyrood has seen the centre of political gravity shift sharply to the east. For years, Scotland’s largest city has been grossly under-represented in the Scottish Government and the city’s ability to fight its own corner has been reduced when compared to the electoral mayoralties in northern England. 

The Herald: MSP Paul Sweeney with writer Kevin McKenna as they discuss the current perilous state of Sauchiehall Street, GlasgowMSP Paul Sweeney with writer Kevin McKenna as they discuss the current perilous state of Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow (Image: Robert Perry)

I suggest that there should be a cabinet minister for Glasgow to fight the city’s corner at the highest level, where its needs have been neglected, even though 40% of the population of Scotland is within an hour’s journey of its most important city. He agrees and so did his boss, Anas Sarwar when I broached it to him late last year.

He tells me of Glasgow entrepreneurs attending international business conferences to seek investment for property development and watching helpless as Manchester turns up with a massive exhibition while Glasgow’s is in a back-room or subsumed into the Scotland stall. 

“The city should have taken steps to create its own in-house property development agency,” says Mr Sweeney. “We can learn from our history here. We’ve done it very successfully in the past with the Merchant City, one of the best examples of inner-city regeneration in Europe.”

What made the difference there, it seems, was that the Council owned many of the properties which they’d bought to demolish to make way for the motorway which had been envisaged going down the High Street, an act of vandalism amounting to a civic war crime

“When that idea was happily ditched,” says Mr Sweeney, “they gave generous grants to small developers to strip out the old warehouses and turn them into flats. That’s what we could be doing with in the rest of the city centre, but we’ve lost the institutional capacity to respond to this following the end of Strathclyde Regional Council. 

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“Around 40 years ago you had the Scottish development agency and the City Marketing Bureau and GEAR in the east end. These were big, influential outfits tasked with overseeing serious project management activities. All we have right now is the Clyde Gateway, the only Urban Development company left in Scotland.”

Meanwhile, cuts to the Council’s budget have made a perilous situation critical. Around 70% of it has been spent on schools and social work with everything else compressed.

“The Planning Department has been completely eviscerated,” says Mr Sweeney. “The capacity for developing pro-active urban renewal projects is diminished when the priority is to fund new boilers in primary schools. 

“There’s the equivalent of the Empire State building worth of empty commercial floor space in the city centre: well over one million square feet. Meanwhile there are 450 Victorian buildings lying empty in the city centre. This is a vast challenge. 

The Herald: MSP Paul Sweeney with writer Kevin McKenna as they discuss the current perilous state of Sauchiehall Street, GlasgowMSP Paul Sweeney with writer Kevin McKenna as they discuss the current perilous state of Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow (Image: Robert Perry)

“We should have a government agency specifically tasked to use compulsory purchase orders on these buildings, as Council leader Susan Aitken hinted at last year. We know that many are owned by a multitude of pension funds. Couldn’t the Clyde Gateway model in the east end around Bridgeton be extended to the city centre?”

On Saturday afternoon, Sauchiehall Street looked great in the sunshine, but only if you looked up. Across the road we behold the excrescence that’s been built where the Grade A listed, Cardinal Folly nightclub used to be, formerly the Elgin Place Congregational Church. 

Yet, after another of those signature Glasgow fires, that gorgeous old building was unceremoniously (and hastily) demolished, despite Historic Scotland deeming it to be salvageable.

Now two concrete shoe boxes stand in its place. The Sauchiehall Street trench is a work of art in comparison.