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City of Hope: in conversation with Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees

Marvin Rees has been the Mayor of Bristol for six years. This month, a referendum to decide whether the city continues with the mayoral system is due to take place. Ahead of the vote, Simon Horsford sits down with the Bristol-born politician to discuss his career so far, and what’s next…

It’s only a short bus ride from Easton to the grand, concave surrounds of the Grade II listed City Hall on College Green, but Marvin Rees’ journey from where he grew up to his current role as Bristol’s mayor represents a far greater stride. The first Black city mayor in Europe has been in the role for six years and as we meet at City Hall ahead of the 5 May referendum on whether to continue with the mayoral system, he recalls the first time he stood to be mayor in 2012 – when he was second to George Ferguson. “I was on stage in the conference room at [the law firm] Burges Salmon with three white men of a certain age: an architect, retired accountant and retired GP, and I thought no-one is looking at the stage, but [instead] at this six foot, shaved, black guy on the end, thinking: ‘Oh yeah, he looks like the mayor of Bristol’. One of the most important things that’s happened since then is that when someone runs in the future who looks like me, they won’t automatically think ‘they don’t look like the mayor of Bristol’.

Rees goes on to stress the point: “When I gave my concession speech in 2012, one of the things I regret is what I didn’t say. If I did that speech again, I’d say: ‘If you’re a single mum in a flat and it’s cold, you’ve got no money, you’re worried about paying the bills and you’re depressed, there’s hope because that woman’s son has just run for mayor and come second.’”

It’s appropriate that in the lobby of City Hall there’s a plaque with the words, “City of Hope” because one of the priorities of Rees’ time in office has been to make Bristol more inclusive. “Since being a kid growing up in the city, I have wanted to make Bristol a fairer place,” he points out. “I grew up not necessarily enjoying life in the city and I want it to be better for people with backgrounds like mine.”

For Rees, his various roles prior to be becoming the two-term mayor (among them working with the relief and development agency Tearfund; the social justice organisation Sojourners, based in Washington DC, and the campaign group Operation Black Vote in the UK) have been about being in a place where he can effect change. He’s also recently been appointed chair of Core Cities UK.

“Being mayor is the manifestation of that aim at this particular point,” stresses Rees. “I’m not running again in 2024 [regardless of whether the mayoral role continues], so I will have done it for eight years and I will do something else and make space for the city to reinvent itself. I think you come in and make change, then you begin to start embedding things and then the danger is you become a blocker in innovation. Ten years is a good term for a mayor, 12 is too long, so best do eight.”

As regards the referendum, Rees believes what’s important is that it isn’t just seen as a debate about the mayoral model, but equally “that the committee system has to be debated because it is not as though the people opposing the mayoral model are offering some splendid neutrality. They are proposing a system and we don’t want to take that on by accident without knowing what it is. Just like Brexit,” he adds, “no-one knows what we are stepping into.”

Since being a kid growing up in the city, I have wanted to make Bristol a fairer place… I grew up not necessarily enjoying life in the city and I want it to be better for people with backgrounds like mine

Crucially, he suggests, the mayoral model gives visibility to leadership. “And that,” he continues, “has a number of benefits – outside of the city, investors and developers know who they are dealing with. We had the national advisory committee on climate change here recently and they wanted to meet me. That is the language of government – we want to know who we are dealing with. That visibility is also important inside the city. I do a press conference every couple of weeks and everything is on the table for good or ill. I am accountable. There is a real advantage for democracy from that visibility.”

Opponents argue that the system is flawed with no “checks and balances”, according to one conservative councillor, while a Liberal Democrat counterpart suggested the committee system allows for “equal responsibility” in decision making. Former mayor George Ferguson has also offered the opinion that since the introduction of the West of England metro mayor (a position now held by Dan Norris) in 2017, more power should now be invested with that role and there’s no longer any need for a city mayor. Rees counters that the combined authority was set up because “we needed to work cross-border… but our remit goes beyond [the responsibility of the metro mayor].” In essence, that means delivering public services. The demands of adult social care and children’s mental health issues are huge (particularly after the pandemic) and as Rees points out: “I was recently talking to some young people about street conflict and knife crime and the work we’ve done on period poverty and child hunger. These are real, raw issues which we are dealing with.

“I’m not saying the mayoral model is perfect but for the first time, the people of Bristol have had a chance to choose who their political leader is [in the city].”

You have to do the hard yards when you are making change. It could be revolutionary, it might be explosive and everyone sees it happen, but sometimes what you want to do is nudge a compass one degree, almost invisible, but in 10 years you are in a totally different place to where you would have been

I wonder if Rees, who joined the Labour party in 2004, would consider becoming an MP after 2024? Surely it would be the next logical step. “I’m not closed to the idea. There are some people advising me against it because one of the points they make is that being a mayor is immediate and about getting decisions done. So they say, ‘you’d find it really frustrating’, but we haven’t decided yet and that is a family decision.”

It might have been a very different career path had Rees joined the Royal Marines. Joining the forces “was my first real ambition. I have always loved walking around hills with a backpack and when I was a kid my mum bought me a Black Action Man,” he laughs. “I did a potential officers’ course and allegedly was going to be the first Black British-born Marines officer, but later I failed the medical because of keratoconus in my eyes.”

Rees is clearly someone who thrives on moving things forward and having the power to do so. He brandishes a thick, glossy document packed with ideas and plans for the city involving various agencies and bodies and covering everything from children, health and the police to the economy and the environment. It’s little surprise that one of his philosophies is “win or learn” – a phrase he plucked from the mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor. Rees’ conversation is peppered with quotes from people who have inspired him.

As regards the successes during his time in office, Rees points to housebuilding – particularly council and affordable housing. “We’ve got that reputation as a city that will get stuff done. It’s a different place [from what it was]”. However, he is also acutely aware how gentrification is changing the character of some areas in the city, pushing up prices and rents “which is having strong cultural cohesion consequences.”

On transport – always a knotty subject – he highlights his ambitious plans for the city taking into account a prediction that Bristol could be home to around 550,000 people by 2050 (it’s now around 465,000). “So we need to start planning today for the future. We are looking at all the options and will eliminate what doesn’t work, but we do think tunnels under the city [as part of a mass transit system] need to be part of the plan, and we need segregated transport routes. The more we can take people off the roads with a clean, efficient transport system, the more space there is for bikes and pedestrians.” The city is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Above: Marvin Rees | Image credit: Lisa Whiting

He also addresses criticisms surrounding Bristol Energy and the shifting of the planned YTL Arena from a city centre location to the Brabazon Hangars at Filton Airfield. “The biggest mistake was setting up Bristol Energy in 2015. It was a challenge but we had to find an exit in an orderly way and we were trying to get the best return for Bristol tax payers. We should never have been put in that position in the first place.” As for the Arena, Rees says using the proposed site at Temple Meads as a mixed used development instead means “more money, more jobs and more economic benefit.”

It is on Rees’ commitment to levelling up inequalities in the city that he is most passionate. One of the most interesting and consequential divides between districts in the city is in healthy life years, says Rees. “There is a 16-year gap within Bristol people as to when people need benefits. Families then become carers, so there are social consequences for them but also financial ones for adult social care and the NHS. That’s why we have made the point about public health being such a critical service. You also don’t solve a public health crisis with people who are 40 years old, you have to solve it at birth with parents’ mental wellbeing, nutrition, good quality housing and education. [It’s about] getting every child off to the best possible start, so our society in 50 years is shaped by what we are doing today.”

Since Rees, who was 50 last month, grew up in the city, he says the nature of inequalities and divisions have changed “but the fundamentals are much the same.”

“When I was a kid, it was usual to drive past and people would shout ‘N*s’. That was not a shock. We grew up in Easton and we wouldn’t go up Gloucester Road after six o’cock on a Saturday until we got physically more strong. We wouldn’t go south and the city was very zonal like that and that is very different now. There is greater diversity in different places.

“At the same time we have a city that has a great story to tell: two world class universities and a thriving creative sector, but we still have one in four kids living in poverty and that is going to get worse because of Covid and we have areas that are in top 10 per cent most deprived in the UK. In Clifton around 100 per cent go in to higher education, while in Hartcliffe, it’s fewer than one in 12 so we have these stark inequalities that still exist in the city. We’ll only fulfil our potential as a city when everyone has access to opportunity.”

When I gave my concession speech in 2012, one of the things I regret is what I didn’t say. If I did that speech again, I’d say: ‘If you’re a single mum in a flat and it’s cold, you’ve got no money, you’re worried about paying the bills and you’re depressed, there’s hope because that woman’s son has just run for mayor and come second’

This is why his pledges for the current term included a call for new secondary schools and the delivery of “quality work experience and apprenticeships, adult learning and youth opportunities, including two Youth Zones”.

One of the most controversial events last year was the ditching of the Colston statue into the harbour. At the time, Rees chose not to pick sides and strove for balance, although he did refer to its removal as “historical poetry” and he reiterates that he doesn’t miss the statue. “Ben Okri [the Nigerian novelist] said: ‘To poison a nation, poison its stories’. If Colston is a glamorous part of our story then we begin to poison ourselves and we have a misunderstanding of who we are and who are our heroes. Symbolic acts are important, but they can be more about the emotional wellbeing of privileged groups than they are about the status of members of underprivileged groups. We’ve not heard hide nor hair from the Colston 4 about street conflict, knife crime, school exclusions, or housing issues since the statue came down.

“Symbolic acts also have to turn to policy. You have to do the hard yards when you are making change. It could be revolutionary, it might be explosive and everyone sees it happen, but sometimes what you want to do is nudge a compass one degree, almost invisible, but in 10 years you are in a totally different place to where you would have been.”

Rees, who still lives in Easton with his wife and three children, is a Bristolian through and through – he supports and occasionally watches the Bears – and an eloquent advocate of the city, its inhabitants and its potential. And he’s someone with clear societal values. As an aside, he mentions campaigning last year on the Lawrence Weston housing estate. “Knocking on one door, it’s opened by this white guy with tattoos, who looks like a darts player, and he says, ‘I’ll vote for you, you’re one of us.’ That was a big moment for me because he recognised our shared story.”

Marvin Rees is a British Labour Party politician and has served as the Mayor of Bristol since 2016.

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