As I See It: Terry Murden
Another large hotel development has been approved in Glasgow which suggests the City Council is more optimistic than some about prospects for the leisure and business tourism sector.
There were already thousands of objections to the £30 million development at the junction of West Nile Street and Bath Street from those who did not want to see it replace five buildings, including a historic pub which has been a gathering place for fans of the Scotland national football team.
But Glasgow claims to have a shortage of hotels. At least pre-Covid. Hundreds of extra rooms have, and are still, being planned. A study published in February found there were about £260 million-worth of hotel deals last year in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness as overseas visitors and conference delegates poured into Scotland. Glasgow accounted for £170m of this investment across nine transactions.
But that was then. A lot has changed in the last three months and with numerous hoteliers now closing or threatening hundreds of job losses the council’s decision to allow another development looks all the more questionable.
Macdonald Hotels, the Crieff Hydro chain, Apex Hotels, the Kimpton Blythswood Square, the Grand Central, InterContinental Hotels Group… just some of those currently counting the worry beads. Seven hotels in the Specialist Leisure Group in the Highlands and Borders have ceased trading.
The West Nile Street site is expected to become a NYX hotel, a lifestyle brand operated by Leonardo Hotels which has similar plans for Edinburgh. The developer, George Capital, and the hotel operator clearly still have faith in a sector which fears for its future.
Glasgow council, still believing the city to be the nation’s style-capital, appears to have been lured by promises of a rooftop restaurant (this in a city with more than its fair share of rain and biting winds) and, of course, “new jobs”.
The jobs angle is always dangled before councillors who feel under pressure not to be accused of turning down employment opportunities. In this case, they also seem to have been persuaded to believe a demolition report which said the current building has no architectural merit.
That depends on what sort of Glasgow you prefer: one with a mix of community facilities, characterful and human scale properties, or a city steadily filling up with enormous and featureless glass boxes, including the huge Virgin Money building going up in Bothwell Street. Do glass boxes have any greater architectural merit than a building that has served the city since the middle of the 19th century? The city is becoming so fond of glazed buildings it ought to be renamed Glassgow.
The Iron Horse pub, which closed in February when its lease and those of its neighbours expired, dates back to 1872 but if the city really does have pride in its roots, its characters and its hospitality then it must have represented an opportunity.
The city is becoming so fond of glazed buildings it ought to be renamed Glassgow
The pub was certainly not without its supporters. It scored four stars on the TripAdvisor website and as well as being the “spiritual home” of the Tartan Army it hosted various local groups such as the Malt whisky club, the RAF society and even the Star Trek club. A petition created on behalf of the bar garnered thousands of signatures with some objectors coming from Australia, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Philippines, Poland, Spain and the US.
They have been ignored. The sad fact is that many of the visitors that these big hotels hope to accommodate are looking for just the sort of ‘old Glasgow’ character that these buildings are steadily replacing. In that regard, the city clearly hasn’t learned from its past mistakes. Ironically, it was the demolition of a much-loved hotel – St Enoch – that represents one its biggest errors and which might now have helped solve its accommodation needs without the need to keep swinging the wrecking ball.
The danger, economically, is that the council is planning for a future that in the post-Covid world will look very different. Business tourism is expected to fall more heavily than leisure visitors. Not only will hotels face tougher competition, but student accommodation, another recent boom sector, may struggle as overseas students stay away.
The council needs to adjust to this new reality and ask why pubs like the Iron Horse survived for 150 years and why it’s only when they’re gone that we regret losing another piece of the city’s fabric.