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Bristol mayor Marvin Rees: Not one government minister called me about Bristol's Colston statue

Mayor of Bristol, Labour's Marvin Rees | Alamy

4 min read

Marvin Rees is one of the most high-profile local mayors in the country – despite not covering a metro area. He talks to Georgina Bailey about Bristol’s tumultuous year and the future of the city’s governance

“It’s part of the joy of running in the city I grew up in, I am a local product,” says Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor of Bristol. “When I went into the boxing club the other day, my picture was still up there, as an 18-year-old kid. I went to visit the allotments and some older Jamaicans said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you, Marvin?’ Well, that’s because they were [last] talking to me when I was about four-years-old.”

Rees, 49, grew up in some of the poorest areas of Bristol, the son of a white British mother and Black Jamaican father. When he was elected as mayor in 2016, his hometown became the first major European city to elect a mayor of Black African heritage. His status as a local boy still matters, he says. “It does build that sense of local pride. Whether people know it or not, visibility is one of the core requirements of political accountability. Fair or unfair, I’m accountable for everything.” 

Rees’ role is part of a complex English devolution structure – Bristol has had a directly elected mayor since 2012 (Rees ran in that election too, losing to George Ferguson of Bristol 1st), and also comes under the West Of England Combined Authority, a metro mayor region since 2017 and currently occupied by Labour’s Dan Norris.

Rees says there is confusion from politicians and the public alike about the roles and who has what power; however he believes his own profile in the city is much higher than his metro counterpart. People have bought into the model of a city mayor, he says.

We had people talking about the city without much knowledge of the city

In a tumultuous year for Bristol, Rees’ profile has grown nationally as well as locally. The city made headlines last summer when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during Black Lives Matter protests. Rees describes the moment as a “tinder box”. “We had a very risky situation, there was the potential for physical conflict within the city.” There was an uptick in hate crimes and “a lot of anger”, Rees says. 

As Rees was trying to take a “restorative approach” to relationships within the city, London-based interventions and “culture war” editorials from ministers frustrated his attempts, he says. “The relationship with central government wasn’t that great. We had people talking about the city without much knowledge of the city. The government had a blanket, ‘we want to protect our statues’… I don’t think I ever took a call from a minister saying, ‘What are you dealing with? What do you think? How can the government work with you to make sure we keep peace?’”

The issue is wider than statues, however. “On many issues, national political structures do not really recognise and are catching up on the significance of mayoral leadership. They don’t disrespect it. They just don’t see it. They see it as second tier.” 

On key issues such as housing, decarbonisation and levelling up, he is disappointed by the lack of engagement with England’s core cities by Whitehall. Calls with ministers are “hit and miss”, he says.

“They’ve failed to recognise the fact that the world has moved on. It’s not the 1970s, nor 1980s . In many ways, some of the world is post-national, cities are much more active on the international stage. They’re not appreciating that we need our national governance and our international governance to move into a new iteration. You can’t take old models of structures and leadership and put it into a new world”.

He gives the example of the upcoming climate change conference, COP26. “There is no plan that I am aware of that Bristol fits into. More importantly, there is no plan that I’m aware of that we’ve actually contributed to,” he says. “You can’t decarbonise abstracts, you have to decarbonise Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Birmingham. While local government is left with so much uncertainty, it means we’re a less dependable local partner.” 

Drawing on his youth boxing experience, Rees will keep up the fight for his hometown’s place in the world – despite his frustrations.

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