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Marvin Rees: Everyone who chooses Bristol as a place to live, work or study is welcome, valued and respected

Marvin Rees: Everyone who chooses Bristol as a place to live, work or study is welcome, valued and respected

Interview with Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol in the United Kingdom

Marvin Rees, born April 1972, is a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of Bristol. He was elected in 2016 on a progressive platform with a strong emphasis on social justice, green policies, affordable housing and others. Upon his electoral victory, Marvin Rees became the first-ever elected black mayor of African descent in the United Kingdom.

Mayor Rees, what can you tell our readers about the city of Bristol? What makes the it stand out?

In terms of our economic contribution, we would describe ourselves as a thriving and innovative city at the heart of the fastest-growing region outside London. This includes being a hub for the creative industries - we’re a UNESCO City of Film and home to Aardman Animations (Wallace and Gromit/Shaun the Sheep and more), IMDb, the BBC and Channel 4 as well as hosting the largest tech cluster by revenue outside of London.

We’re consistently rated one of the best places to live and visit in the UK, and we’re a diverse, vibrant and outward-looking city, with over 187 countries of birth represented and more than 91 languages spoken by our citizens. I’m also proud that we’ve shown leadership on an international level, including being the first UK city to declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency and undertaking a voluntary local review into our progress against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

We’re also a city of contrasts, however. We’re a growing city, and with that comes the need to tackle our housing crisis – to accommodate that growth in population and meet the existing demand for affordable housing in Bristol. While I celebrate our economic success, I’ve made it a priority to ensure that Bristol’s growth is inclusive – 15% of our residents live in areas that are in the 10% most deprived in England.

By focusing on developing new housing, creating connectivity within and beyond the city, and harnessing the city’s energies to deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we’re working to build Bristol as a city of hope, where everyone can share in the city’s successes.

During your term as mayor, Bristol has made incredible strides in its green transformation. How has the city approached climate change and what can your citizens look forward to in the future?

We know that cities are going to be the key battleground in the global response to climate change and in protecting biodiversity. As I said, I’m pleased that we were the first UK city to recognise the immediacy of that challenge and declare both a Climate and Ecological Emergency.

This year we’ve published our One City Climate Strategy and our Ecological Emergency Strategy. Both strategies start with the recognition that no single organisation alone can deliver the scale of the changes we need to see. They set out, however, the roadmaps for us to change our city’s systems of food, waste, energy and infrastructure, to make Bristol a carbon neutral, climate resilient and wildlife-rich city by 2030.

Environmental challenges and transportation go hand in hand. Bristol has done its utmost to promote different mobility alternatives over the last few years – especially during the COVID-19 lockdown. What are the city’s goals for mobility in the future and what are you doing to keep the city’s population healthy, active and environmentally conscious?

Bristol has shown leadership on sustainable travel – we became England’s first cycling city back in 2008 – but as our population increases and climate impact becomes more evident we need to continue to address these challenges. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on transport in the city. In the immediate term we’ve acted to lock in the benefits we saw during the first stages of lockdown.

We have installed temporary cycle lanes and widened pavements to promote increased cycling and walking. We have also brought forward the pedestrianisation of the Old City and the closure of routes in the city centre to through traffic both to promote active travel and to give priority to public transport. I am also pleased that we have been chosen as one of the first cities in the UK to trial e-scooters – an innovation I have been pursuing with government since we hosted the Global Parliament of Mayors in 2018.

Since taking office I have been clear that we need a transformation of Bristol’s transport system that has been overdue for decades. A key priority for us is to connect people to people, people to jobs, and people to opportunities. In particular, we remain the only major city in the UK without a mass transit system.

We simply cannot pretend that people will get out of their cars and end the cycle of congestion, without one. So I am pleased to say that we are making good progress on developing an underground mass transit system and are on track to deliver a business case to government in the coming months. If this is accepted, we will be in a position to secure investment and procure partners to develop the world class, sustainable transport network the city needs.

The last few months have been especially challenging for local governments across Europe. How have you dealt with the pandemic and what are your thoughts on Bristol’s preparedness for future problems?

In my recent State of the City Address I reflected on how this has been a humbling year. Covid continues to test every system we depend on – education, food, transport, our economy. Like cities across the world, we have found that the virus has exposed our inequalities.

It’s those in lower socio-economic groups, in overcrowded housing, front line jobs, black people, Asian people, poor people, those with pre-existing health conditions who have been most likely to contract Covid, most likely to die from it, and most exposed to the economic shock that it has created.

I’m proud and thankful for the many people across our city who have helped so many people through the crisis – from health workers to cleaners, from bus drivers through to retail workers. We also saw a huge volunteering effort across the city, with people helping their neighbours who were in need or vulnerable with food, with essential supplies or simply with contact and support.

Covid has highlighted that unless we deal with the underlying weaknesses in our society, we will be vulnerable to future shocks – be they economic, environmental or socio-political. That’s why, even though the need for economic growth to drive our recovery is urgent, it must be led by values.

Bristol is rising to that challenge by building our One City Economic Recovery and Renewal Strategy explicitly around delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, to make sure that as a city tackling poverty goes hand in hand with improving health and education, reducing inequality, stimulating growth and tackling climate change.

Social justice is one of the key topics of the century and during the Mannheim 2020 conference you made a vital intervention on the subject. How are you and the city of Bristol approaching the issues related to social justice and what role do you think that cities should play in resolving problems in its field?

When I came into office, I inherited a multitude of plans and strategies which aimed to tackle the city’s challenges in isolation. What we face, however, is an interconnected series of challenges which prevent us from achieving our aim of everyone in Bristol sharing in its success. It’s in response to that that we developed the One City Plan to harness the city’s collective energy and expertise, and set out the goals we want to achieve by 2050.

The plan is structured around six themes: connectivity, economy, environment, health and wellbeing, homes and communties, and learning and skills and are all mapped against the Sustainable Development Goals.

We hold these themes together because delivering social justice in Bristol cuts across all of these themes: without safe, warm and affordable homes that are sustainably connected to employment opportunities and centres of education and training, our economic growth will falter, and we will not make the reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution we need to deliver, and our city’s health inequalities will grow.

A few months ago, Bristol came under the spotlight of international media for the removal of the statue of Edward  Colston – but the city has been attempting to deal with its colonial history for a long time now. How has your administration approached the topic and what advice can you offer to other mayors facing similar issues?

I’ve been clear that I can’t condone criminal damage, and I expressed my concerns at a protest that involved a mass gathering during a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting black people in our city. However, as a mixed race man of White Welsh and English heritage that goes back centuries in Bristol, alongside Jamaican heritage with my father arriving as a 12-year-old in the 60s, the statue was an affront to me and I do not regret its demise.

I know the removal of the Colston statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. I acknowledge that some people will feel loss, and many more will be shocked by the way in it was taken down and some will be empathetic. That’s why I’ve convened the We Are Bristol History Commission to help the city better understand our history and how we’ve become the city we are today.

It will take the building and removal of the Colston statue as a departure point and it will also consider the growth of education, the struggles of workers for pay and working conditions, and the Chartists and suffragettes campaigning for emancipation. The key roles of wars, protests, the harbour and the docks, manufacturing and industry, research and innovation, transport, slum clearances, housing, modern gentrification, migration and faith in the development of the city will also be within the commission's scope.

Our aim is to highlight how everyone experiences the results of our past differently. The commission will help us all build an improved shared understanding of Bristol’s story by learning the origins of our beginnings and our journey, contending with events and their meanings, and making sure we share the stories with generations to come. This work will be an important step in helping us all live with difference.

Finally, no interview would be complete without a question on Brexit. What impact will it have on Bristol and how are you moving to address the issues that might appear in the future as 1 January fast approaches and the transition period is about to expire?

At present, we still don’t know what shape our national relationship with the EU will take. That adds uncertainty on top of what we’re trying to navigate in containing this pandemic and rebuilding our economy sustainably and inclusively. That uncertainty sits in a wider failure – a failure to engage with political leaders outside of Westminster as to what is needed from the negotiations, and to understand what relationship cities like Bristol need with our nearest trading partners to succeed after the transition period ends.

I’m aware that uncertainty has a real impact on our residents. I hope that regardless of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, everyone feels at home in Bristol. Everyone who chooses Bristol as a place to live, work or study is welcome, valued and respected.

We recently created #WeAreBristol with a series of films focusing on what unites us, rather than divides us. Now more than ever, bringing people together is critical. I am pleased that over 36,000 of our EU citizens have applied for the EU Settlement Scheme. I would encourage any citizens wishing to apply to do so as soon as possible.

In the face of this uncertainty, we have been proactive in reaching out and building relationships with other cities – both in the EU and globally. Networks like ICLEI and EUROCITIES, as well as the Global Parliament of Mayors, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and the Mayors Migration Council are providing vital platforms for city leaders to step up when national governments are failing to strategically plan for the challenges and opportunities that we face today.

I look forward to continuing to strengthen Bristol’s relationships with cities across the EU, regardless of what deal is in place on January 1st.

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