Bristol Mayor: exclusion of city leaders from Cop26 'incompetent'
Interview with the Mayor of Bristol on climate change, devolution and more
Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor of Bristol has called the exclusion of mayors from the Cop26 talks “incompetent” and a “major misunderstanding of the way the world is actually running today.”
And on the need for devolution, he has described the experience of getting decisions from the government as being “in the grip of a civil servant with an Excel sheet saying yes or no without any local knowledge.”
Marvin Rees has been the Labour mayor of Bristol since 2016. At that time, Bristol was described as the first major European city to have elected a mayor of black African heritage.
I spoke to him today about his reflections on the outcome of the Cop26 talks and how cities are essential to solving the climate crisis.
We also took time to talk about how cities, towns and regions need to avoid being played off against each other, his perspectives on the Greens, and the aftermath of the removal of the statue of Edward Colston last year.
The full interview will be available for paid subscribers later this week.
Although Marvin Rees and other leaders of cities and regions had attended Cop26, they weren’t directly part of the talks, and his frustrations are plain: it is “incompetent to be perfectly frank.”
“You can't decarbonise the world unless you decarbonise its cities. And poor urbanisation, chaotic, unplanned urbanisation will be one of the biggest threats to our ability to decarbonise,” he said, adding: “that means making sure there's finance available to mayors who are running those processes of urbanisation, shaping them with their teams. And the fact that that's not included is a major misunderstanding of the way the world is actually running today.”
A theme of Marvin Rees’ arguments about cities and devolution is over-centralised decision-making in Britain: “we need to totally overhaul the nature of the financial relationship between Westminster, Whitehall, and the UK's main cities and urban areas, and I would extend that out to local government as a whole.”
He described the decision-making model in terms that will resonate with mayors and city leaders across the country. “We've had a model haven't we, whereby essentially we wait and find out what we're going to get. And then every now and again, a different government department will pop up with its own initiative, having not talked to any other government department, and put £5million on the table and tell local authorities all around the country to fight for it. And then we're in a zero sum fight. If you get a good application in you might win. If you don't, irrespective of how good your work is, you won't. And that's not organised is it?”
He argued for local leaders to be liberated from remote government management: “we do need to be released of the grip of a civil servant with an Excel sheet saying yes or no without any local knowledge as to what's going on in the places where people are actually living.”
In fact, Rees described the way the British government deals with funding to cities and regions as a brutal game of ‘scrambles’. “We've got to get beyond this approach to funding. When I was in primary school, when a kid had one sweet left and five kids wanted it and they didn't want to choose, what they'd do is they chuck the sweet in the air and just shout ‘scrambles’. You know, four kids get broken fingers, one kid gets the sweet and that's it feels working with central government. We can't have the ‘scrambles’ approach to finance.”
On levelling up, Rees made clear that cities like his have their pressures that have to be addressed.
“I've said about levelling-up a number of times, we have to recognise that there's a geographical disparity, there's geographical inequality. But we also have to recognise that it's not only about geography, right? There are people-groups who get left behind by the economy wherever they live.” He was clear that he supports the case of northern cities and local government leaders in their argument about more resources for their communities.
I asked Marvin about the electoral side of this. In the Labour Party at present, there's a big debate about how we win back the former heartland seats that we lost in 2019. But to advance we've also got hold on to seats in cities like Bristol. Marvin saw part of the answer in making an argument about the good things that being done where Labour is in office and can make a difference. “I think we need to talk in the lead-up to any general election, we need to talk about more about what Labour does when it's in power.” Compare that to the experience of the government: “We can talk about what we've done in power, but we can also talk, without gaming, with sincerity, about how difficult it has been to work with government, as well. I mean, we've been waiting for a decision on a major piece of infrastructure-funding that will unlock housing and all the rest of it, we've waited for two and-a-half years: someone hasn't been able to make a decision. We've been promised it's a positive decision for two and a half years - someone hasn't been able to put a tick in the box. That's what it takes. That doesn't enable us to plan.”
The full interview, with more on climate change, levelling-up and devolution, Marvin’s thoughts on the Green Party, plus the aftermath of the Colston statue, will be posted this week.
I said when I started this Substack that I would extend it out to interviews and other formats so my thanks to Marvin Rees for being the first to take part