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Smart City plans 'antidote' to Glasgow George Square fiasco

If Glasgow learns the lessons of the past week’s shambles it can come out of it with pride intact, says Rory Olcayto

What a week last week was for Glasgow. It began with John McAslan’s redesign of George Square winning the council’s competition to land the £15 million commission, only for it to be scrapped the same day by council leader and jury member, Gordon Matheson. Cue much debate on the quality of the shortlisted entries, the council’s shabby behaviour, and citizens’ rights regarding the public realm. (None of the schemes were popular with Glaswegians, who rightly felt the competition’s consultation process was extremely light-touch).

By the end of the week there was even bigger news: the city had won a £24 million government-backed ‘smart city’ grant, beating off competition from 30 other British cities and towns. The plan is to use real-time information about transport, energy, crime and health to demonstrate how integrated data management can improve both the local economy and the quality of life.

It may sound dull – one objective is the creation of an app for reporting potholes and missing bin collections – but the government is keen to spin it for all its worth. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, science minister David Willetts said: ‘Where Glasgow leads, the rest of the country follows, and I think the rest of the world follows. This is about what is going to happen in São Paulo and Lagos. These are export opportunities.’

Willetts’ patter is spot-on, and will go down well with the locals. Even when the city is running ragged, as it is now – a report last year said 21 per cent of stores in the city centre are without tenants – a swaggering pride holds sway. Problem is: no one is listening. The news has failed to spark a debate among Glaswegians, or urban designers and city-watchers across the UK, while the aborted George Square competition continues to engage bloggers, journalists and architects alike. No wonder – the human dimension, and the scandal, is intriguing. New claims suggest Matheson scrapped the competition in a ‘fit of pique’. Why? Not for the official reason: because he was listening to the public, who objected to the removal of the square’s notable statues under the council’s redesign. And not because his position at City Chambers had been weakened by the revelation that Strathclyde Police had logged an alleged public sex act between the council leader and another man.

No – the competition was scrapped because Matheson, well-placed council sources told The Herald, had ‘thrown his toys out the pram’ when the scheme he favoured, Burns + Nice’s flowerbed arrangement (pictured), which in plan resembles a Saltire cross – was rejected in favour of McAslan’s stonier, realistically dour, proposal. (One of the London Scot’s images showed the square in use under heavy rainfall, while the Leicester Square revamp architect’s design, placed fourth, was bathed in sunlight). The design contest, one Labour councillor said, has been ‘a f *** ing disaster’ for Glasgow. ‘It was all vanity stuff. Matheson probably wanted his name in George Square somewhere. It’s like Carry On Council sometimes. You couldn’t make it up.

Yet if these various strands are woven together: 1) a renewed belief by city leaders to work with its citizens on public realm design; 2) the smart city initiative that will use data to more effectively manage a city’s resources; 3) an acknowledgement that Glasgow’s retail-led regeneration programme is now a busted flush given the number of vacant stores; 4) which in turn suggests a renewed opportunity to propose residential and new-tech industry uses for the city centre, then Glasgow might come out of this with some pride intact. And where Glasgow leads…

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