The gentrifying effects of the University’s Silicon Valley in Govan

Published

Credit: Adriana Iuliano

Jack Hanington
Writer

The ability of Glasgow’s universities to transform neighbourhoods is already clear in areas like Partick and Townhead. With expanding student populations moving into densely constructed newly-built student housing, local communities are feeling the strain of studentification. Recently, the University of Glasgow has taken a more active role in this expansion of the student sphere by promising a landmark £1 billion campus development which will envelope the old Western Infirmary site. Last month, the University announced its plans to go even further south, over the river and into Govan, where ‘The Clyde Waterfront Innovation Campus (CWIC)” will begin construction over the next two years. In light of this announcement, it is crucial to ask if the University’s expansion is really in the interests of the Govan community, as it is claimed, or is the proposed tech campus a trojan horse for gentrification?

With the help of £27.5m from the council’s Glasgow City Region City Deal, a £28m contribution from the University and the support of 12 unnamed “major industry partners”, the CWIC is designed to be a research centre for nanotechnology and precision medicine. A statement from the University of Glasgow stresses that “the new campus will provide a major boost to the local area, bringing in high-quality jobs and contributing to regeneration”. Yet the promise of “a major boost” for Govan residents does not line up with Principal Muscatelli’s striking declaration that the Clyde Waterfront Innovation Campus could create Scotland’s “Silicon Valley on the Clyde”.

A short search-engine investigation into labour and housing conditions in Silicon Valley reveals one of the world’s clearest examples of violent social inequality. In the campus canteens of tech-giants Facebook and Google, employees dine for free, while in surrounding neighbourhoods one in four residents rely on food banks or miss meals altogether. The majority of rentable apartments in nearby San Jose, where Silicon Valley’s service workers live, are owned by multinational corporations rather than individual landlords, and tenants have experienced rent hikes of 32.2% between 2009 and 2015. During the same period, the income of residents in San Jose declined by 2.8%. The terms ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘gentrification’ are inextricable. Is this the University’s blueprint for Glasgow’s new Silicon Valley in Govan?

Govan residents are wary: “I view this new university development with great suspicion.” A long-term local tenant and member of Living Rent Govan, Bex said: ‘The University promises this project will bring in ‘high quality jobs’ for the area, but I wonder how many of these jobs will really be for local people. Has the council or the University considered how to train local people for these new high-tech jobs?”

While the CWIC plans include the “Invention Rooms”, to be used by local school pupils, there seems to be a gulf between the promised high-quality tech jobs and the Govan community’s current working landscape. Allusions to the job market in the Bay Area do nothing to calm fears about the future of working opportunities in Govan. As Bex continued, “Silicon Valley itself is a site steeped in social cleansing, where working-class people, migrants and immigrants have been systematically exploited in order to provide low-paid services for middle-class workers as their nannies, waiters and car-washers.”

Meanwhile, another local resident, Neil, says, “the same tokenistic claims about social inclusion were made about the Pacific Quay and the so-called media quarter. But without proper training, proper investment in local schooling, and dealing with long-term problems of poverty, these promises just end up being hot air.”

Working opportunities are only part of the issue. Govan residents have been subject to a lack of affordable housing as Glasgow City Council’s investment in the 2000s focused on commercial ventures and industrial zoning, which produced the effect of “eating up scarce housing land and killing the community”, according to local community representatives.

The University’s recent announcement of the CWIC follows the Water Row Masterplan which aims to connect Govan to Partick with a new footbridge. The proposed housing construction that will accompany the Water Row development will be “mostly mid-market rent”, ill-suited to the average income of Govan residents who are already squeezed by rental prices. As resident Bex explained, “Govan has seen year-on-year rent hikes of around 5% for at least a decade, both for private and Housing Association tenants. My social rented flat, for example, went up 23% in the last 3 years through a rent-restructuring process.” At the same time, new Housing Association developments in the area have increasingly been marked by the construction of homes for sale, mid-market rent and part-buy tenancies rather than the affordable social rentals, which the Housing Associations are supposed to provide.

Living Rent Govan described the community consultation processes in the Water Row Masterplan as a “box-ticking exercise”, noting that hugely significant questions about the tenure type of the properties, potential rental costs and income thresholds for mid-market housing were never even asked. As in the Water Row development, community voices seem to be absent from the University’s statements on the CWIC expansion. “[CWIC] is definitely a project from above, as far as I can see,” another Govan tenant, Jeff, commented.

On Clydeside, developments in Govan’s neighbouring Pacific Quay and Glasgow Harbour together with a decades-long lack of investment in Govan have made conditions ideal for gentrifying projects. Pacific Quay and Glasgow Harbour can be seen as part of a heavily subsidised series of council-supported developments aimed at transforming the image of the Clydeside landscape and the city as a whole. The new development at Glasgow Harbour, across the river from Govan in Patrick and soon to be connected through the Patrick-Govan bridge is another case in point. Developed by Peel Holdings Ltd., the new “Lifestyle Outlet” will include another obligatory student complex (400-bed), retail space, restaurants and cafes, leisure facilities and an event space. The developers suggest that it could generate five million visitors a year. As Govan resident, Neil, says: “One thing is for sure: no local residents on either side of the river ever asked for it and it is neither needed nor desired.”

This wider strategy of “regeneration”, a sugar-coated term for gentrification in reality, is encapsulated in Principal Muscatelli’s narrative of moving Glasgow from an industrial shipbuilding city to one characterised by quantum technology, nanofabrication and precision medicine. Such narratives of moving to a service, tech and finance economy have been proven to deliver wealth disparity and social polarisation, as seen in examples from Silicon Valley to Clydeside. And typically absent in the University’s plans for the CWIC is the voice of Govan’s community. But with resistance to the Water Row development by Living Rent Govan and local residents, not to mention a critical and informed analysis of the CWIC, such narratives will not be going uncontested.