Every time I walk from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street during the festive season, I experience the same weird emotional blip.

For a fleeting moment – as I near George Square, but before I can see it – my heart does an impromptu giddy-up at the spectacle some childish part of me still expects to unfold. The Ghost of Christmas(es) Past brings memories unbidden: cold hands in woollen mittens, breath jewelling in the night air.

A giant tree, Santa’s sleigh, a swoosh of lights strung corner to corner. Wise Men, shepherds, a baby in a manger. Then I turn the corner and the magic is dispelled by a maze of metal and the stale smell of bratwurst that heralds the city’s WinterFest.

It’s a dismal, off-putting affair. From outside, the top of the helter-skelter, swing chairs and carousel horses are just visible over the top of the M&N Events hoardings.

Inside, a scattering of stalls offer faux German market wares: snowman snow globes, churros, and fudge that looks as if it has been lying in state since the death of Queen Victoria.

With stewards in hi-vis jackets manning the entrance, it is as far from the spirit of Christmas – and the spirit of self-consciously egalitarian Glasgow – as it is possible to imagine.

You are reminded of this contradiction if you approach the square from Hanover Street. There, the city’s People Make Glasgow slogan peers out, faded, but still legible, between the spokes of the Ferris Wheel. Like the eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg, the big block capitals offer a reproach to the capitalist wasteland below.

They force you to ask fundamental questions such as: which people make Glasgow? And whose interests does the city serve? Is it the rough sleeper huddled in a duvet just outside the WinterFest exit? Is it the family on Universal Credit racking up debt to put a few gifts under the tree? Or is it only those who can afford to pay £7.50 a head for a whirl on the wheel and a fiver for a bag of four doughnuts?



Christmas lights in George Square, 1961



The corralling of Christmas market-goers is not confined to George Square. Edinburgh’s is also gated (though arguably Edinburgh, with its private gardens, is a city more culturally attuned to exclusivity). Nor is Glasgow unique in its economic divisions. Across the UK, there are those with money and those without, the included and the marginalised.

But seeing the gap between the haves and have-nots writ large on the site of the city’s fiercest battles for and celebrations of social equality – the rent strikes, the anti-poll tax demonstrations, Nelson Mandela’s speech – emphasises our transition from citizens to consumers. The creeping commodification of public spaces isn’t new. In the late 1960s, French philosopher Henri Lefebvre was already pushing for people to be given greater powers to shape their urban spaces. In the Thatcher era, local authority leaders started focusing on the “brand” and the marketing potential of their towns and cities.

But in the last few years, the shift from treating public spaces as a public asset to calculating how much income they might generate has accelerated, spurred on by the financial crisis.

One of the ways in which this has manifested itself is in the rise of privately-owned public spaces (POPS) – squares and thoroughfares that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers, such as the open spaces in shopping centres.

Examples of POPS include Liverpool One – a retail and leisure complex on the city’s waterfront which encompasses several previously public streets – the Spinningfields and First Street districts of Manchester, and parts of the Barclays Campus on the Clyde. London has more than 50, including Granary Square. The attraction of POPS is that they bring investment and jobs, and relieve hard-pressed councils of some of their financial burden. The disadvantages include a lack of transparency around their proliferation, and the fact that the control of those spaces is ceded to companies which can deny access and make their own restrictive rules, such as banning busking, protests, or the taking of photographs.

Another trend has been the “festivalisation” of public spaces, with parks or streets commandeered for concerts and sporting events at the expense of those who live nearby or want to walk there.



George Square at Christmas, 1958


Deprived access

THE controversy over Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, for example, reached a peak in 2019 when residents were forced to apply to Underbelly for access to their own homes. Underbelly later lost the contract.

In the beginning, Glasgow saw the 1988 Garden Festival or the 1990 European City of Culture title as a way to shake off its post-industrial blight, to fuel regeneration, which would, in turn, benefit its residents. More recently, concerts in parks have brought in extra cash in the face of cuts and council tax freezes.

That income is particularly important to Glasgow whose population, and therefore tax base, has shrunk, but whose museums and other facilities are still accessed by those who have moved out to neighbouring authorities.

Concerts and sporting events add to the vibrancy of a city. But the more the council relies on them to plug the funding gap, the more the needs of local people and the environment appear to be subordinated.

Glasgow Green, for example, now hosts, among other things, the World Pipe Band Championships, the BBC Proms In The Park and TRNSMT – a three-day festival with a reputation for noise, vandalism and litter.

Not only are residents deprived of access to the park for significant periods, but, cumulatively, the events take a toll on its terrain.

Council leaders are aware that, in ceding control to private interests, the city risks losing part of its identity – an identity summed up by that People Make Glasgow slogan. With this in mind, they talk the talk on public engagement and increasing inclusivity, developing strategic plans to hand residents greater power to shape future happenings.

But when academics at the University of the West of Scotland tested the rhetoric, they found that the council continued to use the language of markets, and to see maintaining Glasgow’s status in a European league table of cities as a priority.

“[Their] words remain largely symbolic, representing attempts to manufacture consent for already-agreed policies … rather than establishing meaningful mechanisms for informed deliberation, empowerment or democratisation,” they reported.

Local authorities may be genuine in their desire to involve the public. But in a global marketplace, he who pays the piper calls the tune.



A snowy festive season in George Square, 1962


Upper hand

THE companies brought in to run events like WinterFest will always have the upper hand which I suppose explains the fact that, while the fences around George Square have been acknowledged as “a psychological as well as a physical barrier”, Christmas market-goers continue to be effectively kettled.

One wonders what the men whose statues adorn the square would have made of it: Walter Scott, who embraced the notion of “civic virtues”, for example; or Robert Burns, who wrote in praise of the common man.

I wonder, too, if the councillors inside the City Chambers ever gaze on the tawdry scene below with a sense of regret.

Do they remember George Square before WinterFest? Do they fear something magical has been lost in the pursuit of profit? Do they, too, hark back wistfully to the days when the city’s public spaces belonged, first and foremost, to its people?