While being the linesman at a football match on a recent weekend, Marvin Rees was – in his own words – “getting some jip from the opposition parents”.
And it got him thinking: “Do they know who I am? Not in the kind of a pompous way, but I wondered if they recognised me and they said, ‘Oh the mayor’s running the line, let’s give him hassle because of the calls he’s made’.”
Rees was reflecting on being mayor in the place he has lived all his life, with his mum still living in the same house where he spent part of his childhood, and brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins spread citywide.
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And it’s not just running the line at a football match where he gets jip. Any politician needs a thick skin to cope with the constant barrage of criticism thrown their way, but Rees has been criticised for sometimes taking things too personally.
A short fuse has occasionally been glimpsed at council meetings, often when dealing with opposition councillors, but during our interview in City Hall he was calm and measured, keen to talk about his successes in office so far.
He had an impressive command of figures, as well as reaching for quotes by the likes of Nigerian novelist Ben Okri and Bristol’s own city poet Vanessa Kisuule.
Rees was briefly flustered, however, when I asked him how his cabinet could soon be taking a decision to close St George primary school at the bottom of Brandon Hill when his pledges to the city include building new schools. It was the only time during our almost hour-long interview when the head of the mayor’s office stepped in, saying they did not yet know the full details.
“It’s amazing to think that if there’s an issue, we can do something about this,” Rees said following a question about the role of the mayor. “And you can make a call. You can make stuff happen. Whether it’s things that are very specific to Bristol, such as heating going off in people’s homes or be it international things like unaccompanied children.”
‘Getting things done’ has been a slogan of Rees’ administration, with the arrival of Channel 4 in the city a topic that he brought up on several occasions during our interview in his office overlooking St George’s Road.
“There is a truth in Bristol’s history that things weren’t getting done,” Rees said. “For many years, people have lamented that Bristol was a city that was doing well despite itself. It hadn’t got itself organised and it hadn’t punched at its weight. Take Channel 4 for example… many people were saying that we were never going to get it but we have.”
More ambitions to achieve include “to lock down” the city’s climate strategy and the regeneration of Temple Meads, to continue the “really innovative approach to housing”, and to develop a mass transit system that could include an underground network.
The work of the mayor and his city office is currently being carried out with the background of a debate about whether Bristol even needs a mayor. But Rees, unsurprisingly, gives this short shrift. “I was elected by nearly 70,000 people, direct line of sight. And they see me, I’m accountable.
“Who failed 20 years ago to deliver on Bristol’s transport? They were anonymous. The council was a group of people who were important to each other and visible to each other, but invisible to the city. Failing to get stuff done and not being accountable because no-one knew who they were…
“To make the argument (about scrapping the mayoral model) without addressing some of the problems with the old leadership model is a little bit superficial I think.”
If Rees does win a second term as mayor, his plans to redevelop the area around the Cumberland Basin, a scheme known as the Western Harbour, will undoubtedly be pushed forward.
Opposition to the initial plans has been vocal from several quarters, but Rees – once again – is forthright in the face of criticisms, including a surprising fondness from some for the ageing 1960s Plimsoll swing bridge which would be demolished as part of the plans.
“In the face of a climate emergency, life has to be different. And I do hope actually some of the climate activism in the city begins actually to talk about housing. Because how we house over half a million people is going to be one of the single most important determinants of the price the planet pays for our development.”
Rees added: “Western Harbour is a massively important development opportunity for the city of Bristol… It is a site that is a seven-minute bike ride and 25-minute walk from the city centre. Employment, retail, entertainment; it’s a site you can build without car parking for private cars; it’s an opportunity to bring life back into the middle of the city as our city centres are challenged; it’s walking distance from North Street.
“And at the same time we can put our flood defences in which we need to do. If you do it at the same time, you can do it in a sympathetic way so haven’t got the horrific imposition of a flood defence system… I think there’s an amazing opportunity, rather than sinking £40m to rebuild a 1960s flyover, you bring life to a place, solve your housing crisis and help meet the challenges of a climate emergency.”
Forty-seven-year-old Rees is the UK’s first directly elected black mayor. Growing up with his single mother in Lawrence Weston, Lawrence Hill and Easton, he studied economic history and politics at Swansea University; and also attended Eastern University, a private Christian university in Pennsylvania, where he completed a master’s degree in global economic development.
Before becoming mayor, he was part of an NHS team reviewing Bristol’s £50m mental health service contract; having also worked as a broadcast journalist for both the BBC and ITV, as a political campaigner and as a charity coordinator for Christian social justice and development charities. He stood unsuccessfully for mayor of Bristol in 2012, before winning in 2016.
There was a recent controversy when Rees talked about how hot air balloons and the Clifton Suspension Bridge – the type of Bristol seen on Instagram feeds and promoted by the tourist board – were not part of the city that he knew.
“Someone said the gorge is central to Bristolians’ identity,” he clarified. “And I said, not all Bristolians. The truth is, when I was at the BBC we would interview kids from Hartcliffe, they’d never been into the city centre. It’s a very small world if you think everything’s about the bridge and the gorge. They’re really important, but they’re not for everyone; that’s the point I was making.”
Bringing a young person’s voice into decision-making is one of the characteristics of his office. On the Western Harbour advisory board for instance, there are no elected councillors but Bristol’s two youth mayors are both members.
Rees said that young people “need to be able to speak their concerns, anxieties, ambitions into the plans that are being put in place today. It is the failure of the previous generation in Bristol that has left us in this city today without a meaningful mass transit system. They couldn’t get the decision done and now we’re picking up a legacy of that as the city continues to grow… So we don’t want to make that mistake again.”
As the city grows, should Bristol Airport expand to cope with demand? And just how sustainable is the growing number of university students arriving in the city?
On airport expansion, Rees appears torn between balancing economic growth and dealing with the climate emergency. “I want the number of people flying to go down,” he said. “It’s not about airport expansion, it’s about minimising the harm that comes through with increasing numbers of people flying… People are going to behave in the way people do.”
And on student accommodation, he appears equally torn but just as thoughtful. “Our two universities in Bristol are massively important to us. They are huge employers and they are huge brands. There are so many startups and so forth that come from them, making a massive economic impact. So we want and we need our universities to be successful.
“But at the same time, what we recognise is that the benefits those universities bring Bristol is not free. It comes at a cost… Our conversation with the universities is, how can we support you to flourish as universities? But we have got to recognise, you flourish at a rate that the city can manage and can cope with. Because if they tip over that, then actually they end up undermining the city that is integral to their brand, and that they depend on to flourish themselves. So we’ve got a relationship which we both need to work well.”
The demolition of the former sorting office next to Temple Meads to make way for the University of Bristol’s new campus is one example of the fabric of Bristol changing during Rees’ time in office.
He has publicly stated his desire to build taller buildings (“done in the right way for the right reasons in the right place”) – but his claim that single buildings have a lower burden on the planet for supplying them with energy is contrary to analysis by UCL, which found that high-rise buildings are more energy-intensive than low-rise buildings, and that it is possible to provide the same floor area on the same site as high-rise buildings but on a much-reduced number of storeys.
He also hopes to honour one of his key election pledges of building 2,000 new homes a year, 800 of them affordable, including those recently built by the council at Broomhill.
“The old sorting office was just such a symbol of negativity and not getting things done, a 26-year bombed-out looking building greeting people as they came into Bristol,” said Rees. “There’s a great line in Vanessa Kisuule’s poem, ‘the chipped tooth in Bristol’s smile’. That’s what it was.
“I want a world-class train station. We are the only core city without a world-class train station and we need one. It needs to be a fitting gateway, it needs to become a hub, as well as a new quarter for the city, the gateway to a world-class university campus, new residential, retail and a conference centre in that part of the city.”
That part of the city also includes Temple Island, formerly known as Arena Island, on which Bristol’s arena was due to be built before Rees pulled the plug in 2018.
A conference centre, 400 homes, offices and a 345-room hotel might well now be built there, but it will not all be plain sailing, with the Sunday Times reporting at the weekend – on the same day that Rees welcomed Labour leadership contender Keir Starmer to Bristol – that council taxpayers will, in effect, be underwriting Legal & General’s scheme for the land, a claim that the city council denies.
In December, a spat between Rees and a BBC-funded local democracy reporter made the news, with the mayor being called “childish” after the reporter, Adam Postans, was “publicly ridiculed” during a council meeting.
So what would Rees ask himself if he were still a journalist?
“I would need some time to think about that,” he answered after a pause. “I’ll let you talk to other journalists about that… I went into journalism because there were a number of things about it that were important for me, (such as) giving a voice to the voiceless.”
The mayor then pulled out his phone in order to quote Ben Okri: “‘Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.’
“It’s a really responsible place. I’m all for accountability, but it’s not accountability in abstract, it’s about holding people accountable to truth, and that means that we will have to be in contact with truth to hold people accountable to truth.”
Does Rees think that the media has fairly reported his time in office?
“I’ll let you talk to the media about that.”
But what does he think?
“It’s probably not for me to say at this time. I’m just saying, if you’re holding people accountable to truth, you have to be in touch with the truth… I can’t change the truth about Bristol. People tell the story of Bristol from their perspective. And one of the points I’ve made is, we can’t just keep talking about balloons, Brunel and bridges. I’m not saying that that’s not true. It is a truth but it’s not the whole truth…
“And if we just keep telling everyone that Bristol’s absolutely fantastic, not only do we ignore the stories of those people for whom Bristol is not fantastic, but we also tell them they don’t matter, because we’re not even going to recognise your story.”
Marvin Rees is taking part in a public meeting on Wednesday, January 22, from 6pm at Holy Trinity Church in Hotwells, organised by the Clifton & Hotwells branch of the Labour Party, to talk about his plans for the Western Harbour.
Main photo of Marvin Rees in his office at City Hall by Martin Booth