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Councillor Susan Aitken

Councillor Aitken is the leader of Glasgow City Council and the co-chair of the Glasgow Economic Leadership board. We spoke to Councillor Aitken about her perspectives on The DNA of Glasgow.

Photo credit: Artur Kraft via Unsplash.

Greg Clark

In your view, what are the core elements of the DNA of Glasgow?

Councillor Susan Aitken

Well, I read an article in The New York Times recently about Glasgow-- and our city marketing bureau which is part of Glasgow Life market the city incredibly well, particularly from a tourist and visitor point of view. But this writer in The New York Times used three words to describe Glasgow which were humane, political, refusenik. And I thought they were wonderful and incredibly insightful from the outside perspective looking at the city, really capturing something that is the DNA of Glasgow, I think, which does make us quite distinctive as a city and make the people of Glasgow distinctive. Political with a small 'p', but I like the refusenik idea as well. The Scottish word for it is thrawn. It's something that's quite-- you know, we don't take kindly to being told what to do; Glasgow has its own view about how things should be done.

And I think another thing - and this is something we're really keen to talk about more and more is this idea of innovation being part of Glasgow's DNA: invention, imagination, creativity, inventing the world and reinventing the modern world time and time again. That Glasgow's always there or thereabouts each time there's a movement of kind of human progress, if you like. I think we lost that for a wee while maybe, or certainly, we forgot that it was in our DNA. And the rest of the world forgot that it was in our DNA as well, and Glasgow became known for other things that weren't good things, that weren't positive things. But we're rediscovering it again and rediscovering our pride in it. So it is that particular sense of the city as being humane, political, refusenik, that we stand on our own, but also, we like to be at the heart of things; we like to be part of what's going on in the world as well.

Greg Clark

Glasgow is sometimes seen internationally as being predominantly a working-class city. To what extent is that useful, helpful or a relevant idea today?

Councillor Susan Aitken

I think it's something that Glaswegians still think of to a significant extent. And perhaps it's not so much about the categories of ABC1s or CDE2s or whatever; it's more about, again, the politics of it and the idea of community-- and solidarity might be the word, actually, that people in Glasgow would use. 

That's something that is part of how Glaswegians conduct themselves, that they are a city that cares about each other and cares about the world, I suppose, as well, and that some of those values that might be traditionally associated and thought of as working-class values are values that are still held very dear in Glasgow around, you know, the value of education, for example, the rights to housing, that being a human right, to have a decent home, a place where people can thrive.

Perhaps there has some-- it's sometimes not been helpful that this aspiration, maybe has sometimes been looked down on. I think that is changing though, and I think, in fact, it has changed quite considerably. I think, now, Glasgow is a city where the desire for all of us to do better, to live better, to have better quality of life, better opportunities in our life is not something that's seen as bad or a betrayal of Glasgow's roots if it's done in an inclusive way, in a way where we lift everyone at once. I think that's the key to Glasgow and Glasgow's sense of what working-class means, that it's for everyone at once, that we try and include the city as a community as well as the individual communities within it, if you like.

But clearly, you know, the whole idea of what working-class is now is so different. And, you know, does it still have relevance? Do most people in this city work for a living? Yes, absolutely. Absolutely they do. So in that sense, Glasgow is a working-class city. We're not a city with a huge amount of wealth or certainly inherited wealth, for example. We don't have, as London does, perhaps, a lot of property in the hands of wealthy people. In fact, you know, a couple of years ago, the Scottish Government changed the council tax bandings and put the upper bands up, increased the rate on the upper bands. Glasgow didn't do all that well out of that because we have a relatively small number of high band, high council-tax-band homes. Glasgow's still a city that is relatively cheap to live in compared to other parts of the UK, certainly compared to London, but other comparative cities, maybe the likes of Manchester as well. Glasgow remains affordable.

So in that sense, we're a city-- although we have enormous inequality still, particularly in health outcomes, which is, you know, perhaps the biggest social justice challenge that we continue to face, we're not a city where there's enormous extremes of wealth at the top end, if you like. Yes, so that idea of 'if people work for a living', that's definitely what Glasgow does, and people take pride in working for a living as well. In that sense, we are still a working-class city.

Greg Clark

And as leader of the city, you've set out a very clear and ambitious vision to move the community of the city in certain directions: health, sustainability, inclusion, shared prosperity. What is it in your experience that really motivates the people of Glasgow to go along with or be part of movements for change of this kind? How do you win their hearts and minds?

Councillor Susan Aitken

So I think there's probably two things that go along together. One is that sense of civic pride. People like to see Glasgow doing well. They actively are now willing Glasgow on to do better and to have great things happen. So there was enormous excitement about COP26, for example. There was a real wave of enthusiasm and energy when it was announced that we were going to be the host city. Things like that.

Glasgow having a global profile and, you know, standing shoulder to shoulder on the world stage with the other great cities is something that people really care about, but they also care very much about their local communities and whether that's a more affluent community or one of the ones that over the years has perhaps been left behind and which we are working very hard to lift and regenerate. Glasgow is a city of villages to quite a significant extent, of neighbourhoods, and people do care about their local neighbourhood and what they want to see is visible improvement in the environment that they live in and in the opportunities available to themselves and their neighbours.

And I think they want to be given the opportunity to be part of that and to lead that themselves. And I've used the phrase a lot, which I think was something that Glasgow suffered from, is 'municipal paternalism'. The City Chambers, a magnificent building, but sometimes has loomed over the city, perhaps. And there was always this view of “we'll sort folk out. We'll give them houses. We'll give them an education. The beneficence of this incredible kind of municipal institution is the most important thing”. And the kickback from that was that, perhaps, Glasgow's communities did lose resiliency; in fact, you know, the evidence seems to suggest that that's the case.

Whatever the ‘Glasgow effect’ is - and we don't use that phrase so much now - but whatever the reason for Glasgow's poor health outcomes and life expectancy outcomes, for example - and they are complex - it seems that there is something in there. And research seems to show us that Glasgow's communities seem to lack a certain resilience to get through the tough times the other traditional working-class communities have managed to hold on to. And we need to rebuild that. We definitely need to rebuild that.

So we talk about resilient communities a lot. And that's not in the sense of leaving folk to it. Far from it. You know, the municipal power and the municipal support for people is still absolutely crucial. But I think the modern elected member, the modern councillor and the modern leader is much more about enabling and facilitating people to own their own challenges and own the solutions to those challenges within their own communities. And we provide them with the tools and the resource to be able to do that rather than imposing on them from above. 

I think, you know, telling people what's good for them has turned out not to be very good for them. It needs to be the other way round. People tell us what they need. And I think that is what motivates people in Glasgow. They want leaders that will listen to them and respond rather than tell them what's good for them.

Greg Clark

Very clear. 

Susan, when you're abroad and people say to you, you know, what works in Glasgow, and why does it work, when you try to distil that-- I mean, there are so many things, but how do you summarise what it is that really works and makes sense in Glasgow?

Councillor Susan Aitken

I think we're a great size. And although I do want to grow the city's population, I would be quite happy for us to remain as a medium-sized city in global terms but within a much more clearly defined metropolitan region. We are Scotland's only metropolitan city. And that is, I think, just something that's very new, really, that kind of recognition. We do need to make more of that. But we have, I think, just the right economy of scale to be able to get key players in a room to genuinely bring together team Glasgow, the people who, if they get together and then take back a task to their organisations that has been collectively agreed on, we can get stuff done, and we can talk to each other and indeed we do quite regularly.

So we have team Glasgow, we have that sense of unity, but we're big enough that it gives us the economy of scale to experiment as well, to try new things, to make a difference. I think the Sustainability and the Carbon Reduction agenda is a really, really good example of that. If we in Glasgow can get our act together to, for example, decarbonise our tenement stock, our pre-1919 tenements, which are the vernacular housing style of the city and what everybody thinks about when you think of Glasgow-- but they're absolutely not environmentally friendly. If we can work out a solution to that, the difference that we will make to all of Scotland's climate change targets and indeed, the UK's climate change targets will be significant because it's big enough.

We're big enough as a city that we can deliver change on a significant scale just by bringing team Glasgow together, agreeing what it is that we wanted to achieve and then each bringing our individual contributions whether that's the council, with the democratic legitimacy that we bring as the city's leadership; whether it's our incredible academic richness in the city, a city with five universities in a fairly compact kind of space that you can walk between; our business community, which I think has a real sense of civic pride about it as well, whatever it is-- and our civil society as well, incredibly important and a very well-developed civil society in the city. We bring those together and agree the outcomes, we can deliver those outcomes. And outcomes in Glasgow, our scale is such that they make a difference on a much, much bigger scale than just the city.

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