News: ‘I want to share my power as mayor’

Louis Emanuel, October 13, 2015


Marvin Rees has vowed to welcome politicians of all parties into his cabinet if elected mayor of Bristol, in a significant move away from his unsuccessful last campaign.

Following his selection by the Labour Party to run against George Ferguson for a second time, he said he is now open to a “rainbow cabinet” – considered a major sticking point at the last election – and wants to give more power to his cabinet members.

In his first extensive interview following his selection in September, Rees also said he wanted to give councillors the job of reviewing residents’ parking zones which he said were “too expensive to scrap”.

He also pledged his support to newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, “a good man” who Rees said he would work with to bring greater powers to Bristol to build houses and improve the city’s transport.

Marvin Rees, Labour’s mayor candidate, gave an extended interview to Bristol24/7. Photo by Emma Woodward

Speaking to Bristol24/7 following his selection in a tight contest with councillor Mark Bradshaw, Rees said his campaign was in the “early stages”, but some changes had already been made to his approach at the last election in 2012.

Most notably, the former BBC Radio Bristol journalist said he had changed his position on who would be part of his cabinet. “We would have people from other parties in our cabinet. The key is to work with the city to set out a Bristol agenda.”

He added that he wants to give his cabinet “real political power” instead of treating them “essentially as an advisory room”.

“My approach to cabinet is to genuinely share power with them so that you don’t end up retaining all the executive power and it all being about the self,” he said, asking: “Do we share power or do we hold power with a sole individual?”

He said he wanted to extend his approach to decentralising the power of the mayor by also giving councillors more of a stake in the democratic process.

One way he hopes to achieve this is through a review of residents’ parking zones (RPZs), one of Ferguson’s flagship policies. “What I want to do is give councillors in each ward the authority to work with businesses and community organisations and give them six months to review what has happened with the RPZs,” he said.

“Come back and tell me what impact it’s had on community life. Come back and tell me how we can make the RPZs work best for people in your ward.”

Asked for his feelings on the policy in general, he said: “I think the biggest problem was the way that it was done. I think it’s left a lot of people feeling steamrollered but I think we are in a tough situation with RPZ because to roll it back would cost money.”

He added: “We have the tiger by the tail, right? How do we get out of it without spending lots of money?

“That’s a real challenge for anyone who’s taking office. We’ve got to create space to make people feel that they do have control over their communities which I think this process hasn’t had.”

Rees said he was open to sharing his power among his cabinet members. Photo by Emma Woodward

Rees, who recently stepped down from his role at in public health at the council to fight May’s election, was narrowly selected to run as mayor by local party members the day before Labour’s national leader was announced.

But in the wake of the national news, he declined an invitation by BBC Bristol to give his thoughts on Corbyn’s victory.

Setting the record straight, Rees told Bristol24/7 he voted for Andy Burnham and Caroline Flint in the leadership and deputy leadership contests, but now “absolutely” backs his new leader. “That’s democracy, that’s the way that it works in political parties. He’s the leader of the Labour Party.”

He added: “(He’s) a good guy. I think he’s a good man. I certainly think that he gives an opportunity for people to ask about the running of politics and economics in the UK.

“He’s asking questions about the economy, whether we are building houses for people, how people get good quality jobs, what we are doing about unprecedented levels of inequality, social exclusion, whether this whole system has worked for people.

“These are really important questions. He’s not somebody who has come into the party from outside, he’s been part of the party and part of the conversation for decades and I’m part of that conversation.”

Rees added that he spoke to both Corbyn and deputy leader Tom Watson at the Labour Party conference, where he also gave a speech which was cut short after he overran his allotted time.

He said that the pair were both supportive of his bid to become Bristol mayor, which is being seen as a major first test for the party as a whole under Corbyn’s leadership.

“When Jeremy got off the stage, Tom said to me it’s probably the first time that Bristol has ever been mentioned in a leader’s speech. I was taken aback and then I thought of course it probably is.”

Rees gave a short speech at the Labour Party conference. Photo from BBC Parliament

To be successful in Bristol, Rees, who was bookies’ favourite to win in 2012, needs to overturn a 6,000 majority.

He said “failure is a harsh word” to describe the previous “tight campaign”. But he added that there was a general failure to engage enough people in the process. “We had a 27 per cent turn out so 73 per cent didn’t bother voting. So, inevitably there was something about how Bristol politics works that last time that absolutely failed.”

He said one significant change this time around is that his team has more time on the doorsteps to speak to voters and develop policy. He hinted that a summer election could also help bring voters out and that the first all-out council elections will push the turnout.

Looking back at Ferguson’s first three years in office, Rees would not be drawn on whether or not the incumbent’s term has been a success or a failure, adding: “It’s up to Bristol to call that judgment.”

He said the mayor has a good “ability to be seen”, raising the profile of the city. But he added: “My concern (is), I don’t want somebody going out and telling a story about Bristol that tens of thousands of people in the city don’t recognise.

“So we tell a story of a fantastic place, vibrant, full of opportunity and 25 per cent of our kids are in poverty.”

Labour will have to beat Ferguson, who is aiming for a second and final term. Photo by Emma Woodward

Poverty levels were mentioned when Rees criticised the mayor in his Labour Party conference speech for not doing enough for inequality in Bristol.

He also accused Ferguson of failing to deliver on promises to get more power for Bristol from central government in Westminster.

He told Bristol24/7 that getting those devolved powers would be key to addressing problems such as transport and housing, the latter of which he sees as a top priority.

“What I said to Jeremy (at conference) was I don’t want to go on a field of play with a broken cricket bat. If we are going to be making promises to the people of Bristol, we need to be making sure that we have the powers to deliver on those promises.

“We need to build houses for people, this is a fundamental – we have not built houses for people in Bristol. So we need the powers to be able to claim the land and to push it through planning permission and with other public sector organisations and get our private developers building too.”

The housing crisis in Bristol, Rees said, is accentuated by gentrification sweeping across much of the city, including where he lives with his family in Greenbank.

Writing on gentrification previously, Rees said it can lead to “class segregation” when some locals are priced out of their own neighbourhoods.

He told Bristol24/7 that it is not too late to stem the problems to “avoid what’s happened in London”.

He added: “In some sense the soul is being ripped out of the heart of the city. Everything that made it unique, is not economically attractive now. We need to be really intentional on how we preserve Bristol as a place where real people can live.

“It’s not about blaming individuals, it’s not about blaming businesses. It’s about looking at the way that we run housing. I don’t think giving people the right to buy on housing associations is wise at all. If anything, we need to be building to rent as well so we can preserve the mix of people in communities.

“I think it’s a wicked problem and it’s a global problem but it’s one that we should take on.”

Read about Marvin Rees’ ideas for a City Office to combine resources in Bristol.

Read about the other candidates vying to by Bristol mayor in May.

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