‘It’s enjoyable because it’s meaningful’

Being mayor is about bringing people together, Marvin Rees tells Richard Angell

First published in Progress magazine

On an otherwise disappointing local election results night – net losses under a new leader being a first in British politics – there were a few bright spots for Labour this May. The party retained the mayor of Salford with a new and energetic candidate, Sadiq Khan became the highest-ranking Muslim politician in the western world – and Marvin Rees won the mayoralty of Bristol. He stood four years previously, and lost to former Liberal Democrat-turned-independent George Ferguson. Yale University-educated, this mixed-race guy from Bristol’s toughest estate has a higher vision for his city. It is fair to say Rees is not a very tribal politician, something his councillor colleagues have found frustrating. But he is a passionate progressive and perfect for the role of mayor: big on vision and keen to bring people together for shared solutions. Two months into the job, that big picture looms large.

‘How we untangle this challenge of doing economic development that doesn’t compound inequality, lead to gentrification, and then lead places to be unaffordable’, is the task he has set himself. He calls it ‘the golden nugget’. It is so important because the city he loves is ‘good on driving prosperity’, but recent growth has ‘compounded inequality and [Bristol has] become more unaffordable’ for many. To scale ambitious heights he is shaking up the council.

‘We are interdependent’ as a city, Rees tells me. ‘If we drop the ball in public health and local government, someone else is going to pick up the tab for that be it in the criminal justice system, or the National Health Service, or there’ll more likely be absenteeism from work.’ He is striving for a ‘whole public spending approach’ where the police, health, education and Job Centre Plus all work together in the area for wider social justice goals. ‘We can only really deliver on some of the “wicked problems” if we’re coordinated and we agree what the shared priorities are.’ To take a lead, Rees says, ‘[my] office [will] have representatives from all the major institutions working together on a daily basis.’ He gives one example: ‘If we wanted Bristol to be a city that had no areas in it listed among the top 10 per cent most deprived in England – we have about 42 at the moment – then local government cannot deliver that alone.’

This ‘place-based leadership’ is based on guru and professor of cities, Robin Hambleton. An academic at the University of the West of England, his latest book sounds right up Rees’ street: Leading the Inclusive City – Place-based Innovation for a Bounded Planet.

Bristol is the latest city, along with neighbouring North Somerset, Bath and North-east Somerset and South Gloucestershire, to sign up to a new metro mayor and city deal. So would Rees be a contender for the new role? He denies it. ‘It’s not something I’ve considered doing, I’ve only just got [the] Bristol [job] so I think I probably need to earn my stripes in Bristol’. But the new role is a ‘price worth paying’ as ‘an unbreakable condition’ of the Devo One deal, giving access to ‘deals two, three, and four’.

Bristol as a city voted ‘Remain’ but the country is set to leave the European Union. One week after the result, Rees says, ‘we pulled together a group of people to meet me at the City Hall from universities, business, voluntary sector looking at the financial and social impact.’ Is there a local backlash? ‘We know anecdotally we’ve had impact in two areas … Staff at our universities, international staff have been expressing their concerns. We’ve had a number of Brexit-related race hate incidents going on’. ‘We also know that we’ve got early evidence that a number of investors are starting to hold off until they find out what’s going to go on.’ In addition, ‘Our voluntary sector has been in receipt of millions of pounds of EU money – that’s going to be impacted.’ If only central government had in place the same kind of plan and joined-up thinking …

Rees is a different kind of politician. He takes over a city that ‘felt that politics wasn’t listening’, where the ‘the mood music that was left in the city was not great’. He argues the combination of being a ‘mixed-race man’ plus his ‘own class background … has meant something to people’. ‘It gives me a bit of licence in some sense. I’ve really challenged people when they’ve used that lazy phrase about the “political class”, or “career politicians”.’ ‘I was stopped by someone the other day. I said, “What do you mean by the ‘political elite’?” He said, “Politicians.” I said, “I’m a politician – are you saying I’m an elite? Do I get a pass into the British elite just because I got elected? That’s nonsense. I’ve still got seven brothers and sisters out there, my mum still lives on [the same road he was raised on].’

As month two draws to a close, how is he feeling? ‘I’m finding it enjoyable because it’s meaningful.’ But too many often assume he is on the political conveyer-belt. ‘People have sometimes said, “It won’t be long before you go off to London.” I thought, “Why would you go off to London and become an MP?”’ Aware that ‘successful local government in general is absolutely essential to our national success’, Rees has a big part to play in that. He hopes success in Bristol can create a ‘platform for others’ to stand on, and the role of high-profile local mayors will make ‘politics more human, and more real, and have some of that rub off on the MPs’ because ‘Westminster is played as dirty word’.

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Come along to hear Marvin and many others at this weekend’s conference, Governing for Britain: Local answers to national questions – get your ticket here

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