Susan Aitken: Boris Johnson could learn lessons on ambition from Glasgow

On his trip to Orkney last week the Prime Minister set out to win our hearts and minds by instructing us Scots to be grateful that our own money was being spent addressing the consequences of the coronavirus. Had he engaged with people on the ground, perhaps we could have explained to him that this is not a political dividend or Westminster benevolence – but exactly what any and every government should be doing in the face of such a crisis. Or, for that matter, asked him why the support offered by the UK Government in response to the pandemic – welcome though it is – is still considerably lower than that provided in other G7 countries. 

Of course, Boris was only ever interested in a stage-managed and cosmetic visit, otherwise he would have come to Glasgow to see the impact of the virus on some of Scotland’s hardest-hit communities. His Tory colleagues in the city could, I’m sure, have also shown him first-hand the impact of a decade of ideologically driven cuts, austerity and neglect on tens of thousands of Glaswegians.

And of course no trip by the PM north of the Border is complete without reference to his proposed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Ahead of the jaunt, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis gushed about his boss’s enthusiasm for bridges and “exciting infrastructure projects”.

Such excitement is, however, far removed from reality. “Boris’s Bridge” is in equal parts fantasy and vanity, and with estimated costs quoted as ranging anywhere from £20 billion to £60bn, owes more to the Prime Minister’s bluster and bravado than it does to engineering and economics. Just like his proposed solution to the grim challenges Brexit throws at us, Boris’s “be bold and ambitious” mantra simply cannot trump the facts. To quote from a recent report on Boris’s Bridge by one of the country’s leading economic think tanks, the Fraser of Allander Institute: “In short, it won’t deliver the economic boost some claim, it isn’t a priority, it would go to the wrong location, it wouldn’t be consistent with climate change objectives and the money could be better spent on other things.”

Why is the folly around this proposal important to the people of Glasgow? Because our city, along with our neighbouring local authorities, has those “other things” upon which even a fraction of the fantasy bridge costs would be better spent. We have any number of projects which we know are deliverable, which can reactivate and renew our economy as we emerge from the pandemic and which can change lives and create employment across Glasgow, the city region and, indeed, all of Scotland.

And we can make a compelling case that these projects will also go some considerable way towards the ambitious carbon reduction targets all of the UK is required to meet. Projects like the City Metro – which will put us on to a level playing field with other European cities of Glasgow’s size, connect communities with new jobs, education and leisure opportunities while reducing private car use and emissions. Like Mission Clyde – which will harness the Clyde’s potential to create green energy, bring back into use land left vacant for decades for homes and businesses and build on the SEC’s capacity to become even more of a world-leading national asset. 

And like our plans to continue leading the way with some of Europe’s best quality and most sustainable new build social housing, as well as the mammoth task of adapting our distinctive pre-war tenements to meet our carbon neutrality targets. In 
doing so we can create many thousands of jobs while also making those tenements much cheaper and more efficient to heat and power.

The City Region Cabinet. the leaders of the eight councils overseeing the £1bn Glasgow City Deal, want to see the Scottish and UK governments relax the rules around how we spend the remaining £750 million. Instead of paying it out over the next 15 years, we’d like to see it frontloaded to meet the immediate needs of stimulating our economy. Next month we’ll discuss what additional powers we’ll need to aid our recovery and deliver for our citizens. And in the past few weeks the expert group of industry leaders, academics and the third sector which I chair has made its submission to the Scottish Government on what we believe is required to equip us to truly recover from this pandemic and build a sustainable economy which delivers for everyone.

One of the Prime Minister’s buzzwords is “ambition”. We have plenty of that here in Glasgow, but it’s ambition grounded in a deliverable reality, with well-developed and genuinely transformative plans. Instead of revisiting a 150-year-old idea, coating it with dubious economics and demanding his ego is massaged by giving it credence, perhaps Boris could match our ambitions for the people of Glasgow and Scotland and focus 
on proposals which can really make a difference.

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