In conversation with Marvin Rees - RSA

In conversation with Marvin Rees

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  • Public Services & Communities
  • Cities
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  • Fellowship in Action

“You’ve got to release the energy and the untapped abilities that are in the cities”

Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees talks to Rachel O’Brien about his work with the UK Urban Futures Commission, a major new undertaking created by Core Cities and the RSA, and Bristol’s ambitious plan for the future

Rachel O’Brien: Early in your career, you spent time in the US before returning to the UK. You have been a broadcaster, worked in NGOs and with the NHS. How did these experiences help to shape your political life?

Marvin Rees: My journey was not a career journey. It was chaos. I would describe it as a young Elisha looking for an Elijah. Elisha and Elijah are two Old Testament prophets, and Elijah mentored Elisha. I love my dad, but he wasn’t around. I didn’t know how to pull it together, so I was always looking. My first job out of university was with Tearfund, a development agency, and through that I got to know about Sojourners, a faith-based community and magazine that came out of the civil rights movement. After a year there as an intern, I worked on Jubilee 2000, did a master’s in economic development and went to work for Bill Clinton’s adviser, Tony Campolo.

Back in the UK, I joined the BBC. Great journalism is an essential part of any functioning democracy. How you tell stories – and whose voice is heard – is of huge significance. But I also saw that only certain people are given a voice. I went to work on a race equality and mental health NHS programme. That was significant. Public health holds that health is not produced by the health system; over 40% of health outcomes are down to ‘wider determinants’ such as housing. I’ve certainly brought that into my mayoralty. You don’t get outcomes because you come up with a policy in a sector on a theme. You need to rally a whole bunch of forces, over some of which you have no control. What the mayoral system offers is not command and control, or power over the city. What it offers is the power to convene and offer and ask.

O’Brien: Would you characterise Bristol as having a highly independent spirit and, if so, did this play into the decision to vote to scrap the role of mayor? (In May 2022, voters in Bristol chose to end the mayoral role at the conclusion of Rees’s term in 2024 and return to a committee system – Ed.)

Rees: Bristol is a city of contradictions. It presents as this progressive, advanced, activist city. And in one sense it is, but it’s also not at the same time. Personally, as me, as Marvin, I’m not part of that middle-class Bristol. I grew up as a mixed-race kid in Bristol. I lived on a housing estate with my single mum. Grew up around my one full sister and six half-brothers and sisters, one of whom grew up in the care system, another who left school with just one D grade GCSE because the school system totally failed him. I grew up on the ‘wrong’ side of those two Bristols. I fight my way through, get elected and, suddenly, I’ve got middle-class Bristol holding me up as the example of the political establishment.

My journey, breaking down these barriers, led me to this interesting place where some of the most marginalised people are more appreciative of me than those who profess to want to break down barriers to social mobility. That kind of green, independent, anti-establishment vote is one I have a difficult relationship with. I find that some of those more progressive groups are more comfortable with refugees than they are with third-generation Jamaicans. At Tearfund, I sometimes felt that the supporters of international development were more comfortable with helping Black people overseas than they were relating to Black people in their own country.

I’ve got two deputy mayors: Craig Cheney, one of 11 children who grew up in poverty, and Asher Craig, a Black Rasta woman. I think there is an issue, in a city of protest, when the three most senior politicians come from working-class Black and African backgrounds, and people want to rail and be angry at the political system, and they see me, Asher and Craig, and say, “Oh. What do we do around this?”

O’Brien: I cannot think of a more high-profile recent example of where city, place, identity and history have come to the fore than over the Edward Colston statue. How difficult was this and did it change how you think about Bristol?

Rees: It was challenging but I didn’t find it difficult. I’ve grown up across these boundaries, with these contradictions, moving between identities and communities. Race isn’t just about being nice to each other or polite language. It’s about power. It’s not about white guilt, either. I don’t go home and give my mum or my nan a hard time for being white. But I am still going to talk about race in all its fullness. I’m going to be real about my white grandad’s experience as the son of a poor Welsh miner who grew up in absolute poverty, and the lack of respect my mum experienced as a white woman. White privilege is real, but my mum did not lead a life of privilege. The accumulation of experiences I’ve had growing up across these boundaries prepared me for that moment in time.

The Colston statue was interesting, not least because it showed something about the way journalism works. There was no profile on the Colston Hall being renamed the Bristol Beacon. Why not? Because it wasn’t dramatic. There was a conversation and orderly process that went on for years. For all those people that got excited about the Colston statue in the name of anti-racism, are you more interested in the drama of the event, or the actual substance of what may or may not happen? Do I want a statue of a slave trader up in the middle of the city? No. But I am the mayor. Can I sanction it being pulled down by a bunch of citizens with ropes? No. I’ve got to have an orderly process.

Some on the progressive side wonder why I didn’t have the statue taken down earlier. I come in as the first Black mayor of a major city in Europe. We’ve just had a Brexit vote. So, the first thing I should do is come in and take down a statue that a number of white Bristolians see as synonymous with their identity? What would I end up doing for the next four years, and what would that mean for the prospects of a future Black person getting elected? I don’t talk about housing then, I don’t talk about mental health, or about transport. We just talk about me and symbolic statues.

When the statue got pulled down, there was no memo that arrived on my desk the next day saying mental health, asset ownership or education outcomes had changed. I would ask my critics, if you had finite resources, and you could do five things to tackle racism, what would you do first? Housing, probably, and then what? Mental health? Criminal justice? Education? That’s not to say the statue isn’t important, it is. But symbolic acts without substantial policy or system change can become what stalls progress. They’re often more about the feelings of members of privileged groups than about the status of members of the oppressed groups.

Symbolic acts without substantial policy or system change can become what stalls progress. They’re often more about the feelings of members of privileged groups than about the status of members of the oppressed groups

O’Brien: Before Covid-19 arrived, you knew how unequal Bristol was, but how did it enhance that awareness among the city and services?

Rees: The popular piece of public analysis, or conclusion, is that the inequalities of our societies were exposed by Covid-19. But they were always there to be seen if people chose to see them. From the very beginning we saw that it was those people with underlying health conditions, who tend to be poorer, it was those people with jobs where they had to continue to go into work – the cleaners, people in factories – that were going to be disproportionately exposed. Before lockdown, we looked at reorienting programmes we had already put in place – like one for tackling child hunger in Bristol – towards whole families. We were able to be quite proactive because we’d always had that focus on poverty, equality and inclusion. We are ferociously ambitious, but we just want to make sure that it’s inclusive and compassionate ambition.

O’Brien: Which takes me to the Levelling Up agenda. Have we got the right strategy to not just deal with what is coming but to really understand what has been?

Rees: Putting a new title on an old approach doesn’t help. The phrase ‘levelling up’ was used and the fear was that it would just be another government announcing big pots of money and then telling local governments to fight for it, with some winners and some losers, according to how good their bid writers were. But we can all get with the sentiment. We should be ambitious and make that ambition inclusive. But I don’t think government know how to do it; you can’t level up from Westminster, and you can’t level up by announcing funding pots.

I’ve been involved in Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future. It was essential work, but what struck a little bit of fear into me was the government’s response: they said, “You’re dealing with stuff that no one’s interested in.” But it’s not just having the aim that’s important; you’ve got to work out how you’re going to get it done. It’s the same with the UK. You can’t deliver this just by playing around in Westminster with a few PPE graduates. You’ve got to release the energy and the untapped abilities that are in the cities, not just as individual units but as a collection of cities and their global connectivity.

O’Brien: Do you think we’re at a tipping point, where there is that chance to release that energy?

Rees: No, I don’t. For example, I’ve just been to COP27. The government, businesses and local government were all there. If the government was serious about this new model of governance, it would have organised a meeting before we got there, to come up with a coordinated, coherent approach and understand what investment is needed to mobilise the billions upon billions of pounds for decarbonisation of the UK’s economy. It didn’t do that, and I find that shocking. So maybe the words are being used but the government doesn’t understand the ambitious, inclusive, cooperative leadership that we need.

O’Brien: How do we ensure that ambition and inclusivity is also regenerative?

Rees: We need to reframe the way we think about the economy. It seems to me that we have an approach to making our finances work that’s akin to burning your coat to keep warm. We take short-term measures that may please the markets or give us a bit of momentary respite, but, when it’s all done, we’re in a desperate situation. We’ve done that by hollowing out the economy and local government over the last 12 years.

What we should be doing is saying to the world and to the markets, ‘I’m not just going to talk to you about balancing the books right now, but about the kind of country we are going to be in 2027

What we should be doing is saying to the world and to the markets, “I’m not just going to talk to you about balancing the books right now, but about the kind of country we are going to be in 2027. By 2027, we will be one of the most resilient countries in the world, both in terms of our physical population in mental health, physical health, the capacity of our children and young people to learn, the physical infrastructure we have in place, flood defences. We’ll have a housing stock that people can afford to live in, we’ll have social stability.” Then, if we all agree that that’s what we should be doing as a country, developing a learning-ready, work-ready, stable society that is environmentally, socially and politically resilient, then we need to communicate how we’re going to do it. We’re going to reclassify ‘public spending’ as ‘public investment’. We’re investing in mental health, in education and in creating a more resilient, equitable society.

O’Brien: Are you optimistic about that change and the potential of the Urban Futures Commission, working with Core Cities UK, to play a role in this respect?

Rees: I’m not an optimist but I am a person of hope – Desmond Tutu made the distinction between the two. We’re entering a period where we have an incredible opportunity to learn. It’s not the way we’d have wanted to do it, but the pandemic tested every system in our society. The education system was tested for its resilience. Courts, parole, prison, food and transport systems were all tested. If we chose to, we could have watched that process, found out where the weaknesses were and then addressed them so we could be more resilient. I’ve seen no evidence of that happening; there is no coherent conversation between government and local authorities to identify those lessons.

When it comes to the Urban Futures Commission, there’s a phenomenal opportunity, not just to set out a vision, but to develop a plan for UK cities. In doing so, there are three key questions we need to address.

First, what are cities? What’s the nature of the relationship between a city and the UK’s economy, its overall performance? What is a city without its hinterland? We’re interdependent. Bristol has a population of 472,000, but it’s a million during the day. We have to understand how the health of Bristol is connected to areas around it and vice versa. That should help us get beyond this false towns-versus-cities debate.

Second, what do we need cities to be? We need cities to be affordable, a massive challenge with gentrification. We need them to be maximising efficiency so that they’re not producing a massive disproportionate burden on the planet. We need them to be economically strong and globally connected for our trade, soft power and relationships.

The third question spills out from those two. How do we help cities become what they need to be? For me, that means a plan that is attached to real dates and real finance because this stuff doesn’t happen without being invested in. We need houses built, we need mass transit put in place, we need decarbonised heat systems, circular economies, sustainable food supplies and an educated population. If we do it right, we could be in the very earliest stages of writing an evidence-based plan for UK cities that takes us up to 2050.

And that will involve devolution. We need to frame this as an offer and an ask. We will collect evidence that will clearly demonstrate the scale of the offer that the UK cities can make to the UK and to the world, and what’s needed to release that offer, which will be dates, finance, and a rewiring of national leadership. Not to say that the national government disappears, but sometimes its role is to be a top-class follower, to say, “Right, Bristol, I see you’re developing this big energy deal, City Leap. We want to come in and support you. How can we follow you in this and help you to make it possible?”

There will be times when national government still needs to lead. But we need to mature so that we see that the weighting of leadership around specific issues in different contexts at different times will shift between cities and national governments. This would be a much more dynamic model. That will take a lot of humility and maturity between the various parties; we are not there yet. We still have this default that there is a hierarchy of political leadership and governance, and anything outside of Westminster is somehow second tier.

O’Brien: The pandemic reinforced the potential of local action and engagement, highlighting local sources of trust. Both within the Commission but also more broadly, what is the role of the public?

Rees: In terms of engagement, we all have a responsibility to get involved. You’ve got a responsibility, as the public, to source your information. But politics and journalism also bear a piece of blame in disengaging the public. Politicians serve up conflict, and there are councils like that, too. Why? Because the journalists cover the scraps and create binary options because that’s easy to sell and makes for a good headline. So, you’ve got three groups taking us down a rabbit hole; no one’s on thick ice.

But ‘governance’ is not just about elected politicians. Making this real will be down to politicians and policymakers, but it’ll also be down to the private sector, private financing and philanthropy, who may, in some instances, want to come in and de-risk new kinds of markets; cladding of homes, off-site manufactured housing that can be put up quickly. We need to get pipelines ready that those markets need. We will also need a thriving social sector and to factor in the voluntary community sector, which can help build stable, resilient communities. This is about a collective act across all sectors.

Marvin Rees was elected Mayor of Bristol in May 2016 and re-elected in 2021. He is the Chair of Core Cities and a Co-Chair of the UK Urban Futures Commission

Rachel O’Brien is Commissioning Editor of RSA Journal

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2023.

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  • We’ve only had two city mayors but Marvin Rees has been the most inspiring and dynamic leader the City has had in the 50 years I have lived in Bristol. He has made socially just and and inclusive changes to the city and people’s lives. He carries out what he promises and in particular he has built houses! Some people don’t like him but why not? There are some people who resent that he has addressed the needs of Black and other minority ethnic groups who have been much neglected by previous leaderships; there are moaners about houses and flats being built in their area, fearing loss of parking spaces or services. Bristol is a popular city where people want to live. Marvin Rees is trying to make this work for all of us. Only a small minority of people voted in the mayoral referendum. The driving lobby, whoever they were, won the vote to reject a mayoral model. I fear now what will happen to the future of our city once Marvin Rees’ term of office ends. I don’t see another insightful, progressive leader like Mayor Rees waiting in the wings to lead the council. Thank you Mr Rees for everything you have done for the city and people of Bristol.

  • Marvin Rees has proved deeply unpopular across classes in Bristol, so unpopular that we chose to reject the mayoral model rather than suffer similar in the future. He’s proved thin skinned, rude, and aggressive to anyone who disagrees with him. As this article demonstrates he has a huge chip on his shoulder about class, a paranoia that he might be revealed as actually being as middle class as anybody in the city, despite of his oft-repeated origin story. There’s no place in a modern city for a mayor who, by virtue of bad design, has an all-powerful position and an autocratic attitude. A single man’s ideology has distorted the ambition of the rest of the half million residents of Bristol. It’s not all about dividing people by class, or race, it should have been about bringing people together. He’s failed in that and so failed to bring people with him.

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