Chamberlain Lecture 2021

Mayor Marvin Rees delivers the 2021 Chamberlain Lecture.

On Tuesday, I gave the third Chamberlain Lecture on Local Government at Cratus in London.

The livestream of my speech is available on YouTube, with the full text below.

I want to start by thanking Cratus for inviting me to deliver today’s Chamberlain Lecture.

It is great to be here with you in person, as well as on the live-stream.

While it is a huge honour, it is also a huge challenge to follow on from Lord Heseltine and Lord Kerslake.

I have been reflecting on all of their legacies – and in this Chamberlain Lecture, I hope that I can do them justice.

Joseph Chamberlain was Mayor of Birmingham for only three years and yet he is remembered for delivering so much.

Many of his social reforms have been realised, revised, and refined in the almost 200 years since his birth.

Chamberlain’s ideas – of a state proactive on critical issues from universal education to old age pensions – are understood to have helped inspire the seminal Beveridge ‘cradle to grave’ report in the following century.

Michael Heseltine has been a unique voice in Westminster politics – one that recognised the need to – and actually sought to – proactively invest in and share power with our local authorities and cities.

While I did not know Joseph Chamberlain and I do not know Michael Heseltine, I have gotten to know Bob Kerslake.

He has been a personal support to me as a first time politician and his UK 2070 Commission offers a major contribution to our understanding of regional inequalities across the UK and what we need to do to tackle them – not merely as an issue of fairness, but in the national interest.

These inequalities rob the nation of talent.

I hope to pick up on many of those themes during the course of this talk and the discussion that follows. I will share some of the experiences and insights that we – my team and I – have developed as we have tried to offer our city good leadership and work with government.

I will also share how we have grown into the necessity of city leaders connecting with other city leaders in order to influence national and international policy and events.

What’s it like being a Mayor?

But I thought I would start by answering a question asked in a recent Cratus discussion with Lord Heseltine and that question was “what is it like being mayor?”

On Friday, I spend an hour and a half with prefects at a secondary school talking about life and aspiration.

Yesterday, I started the day discussing my cabinet appointments before thinking with my team how we would manage our relationships within our combined authority.

As I left the office yesterday evening, I confronted a guy weeing on City Hall.

I was joined by an old school friend who happened to be walking past and took umbrage to the manner in which the said “wee-er” responded to my challenge.

Enough said about that!

Last week, I was on a call with fellow mayors from the Mayors Migration Council, planning our approach to the current migration crises and the increasing the likelihood of shocks that will produce more crises in the future.

This morning I recorded a panel discussion with Professor Gregg Clark, Chair the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission, and Alice Charles of the World Economic Forum, on the question: “How do Cities Finance the Transformative Work They Want To Do?”

And this evening, I am with you.


As one former Governor of New Jersey put it…

Mayors are part of a small number of politicians, who have to be one hundred per cent focused on getting stuff done – not just saying stuff.

There are no “opposition” Mayors; there’s no such thing as “shadows” in local government.

Great speeches or clever questions “don’t solve one problem for one person.”

As a Mayor, you’re expected “to plow the snow, … to get the schools open.”

Great legislators can be consigned to opposition for their entire time in office.

But as a directly elected Mayor, there is no break from responsibility, no break from visibility, no break from delivery.

The reason the job exists – particularly for a city like Bristol, which was the only city to vote yes to having a Mayor in the 2012 referendums – is simple.

It is to get stuff done… and yesterday.

And its relentless.

Just after I was elected, I was in New York and I visited with Michael Berkowitz, the Head of 100 Resilient Cities and who had worked as a leading member of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayoral team.

I was in that imposter syndrome phase of my own mayoralty, desperate for anchors and certainty.

I talked about this with Michael.

He said to me the first year that they were in power was like having their mouths around a fire hydrant.

That gave me some peace.

And it is one of the reasons that Bloomberg has gone on to launch the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative – because as he said, there is no natural preparation for being mayor – for being a city leader.


Before I was elected, Steve Bullock, the former mayor of the London Borough of Lewisham, shared with me a bit about his experience.

He told me of going into his office as mayor and finding all these metaphorical levers presented to him as the levers for change.

But – he said – as he pulled them he found they were not actually connected to anything.

He needed to build a team, systems, and a culture that would connect his leadership to the physical, social, political, and economic forces in the borough that would ultimately improve the outcomes for its citizens.

We have taken this to heart in our approach to city leadership.

We have had to take the local authority itself in hand.

We commissioned Stephen Bundred, the former Chief Executive of the Audit Commission, to undertake a review of Bristol City Council when we came into office, following discovery of some major financial challenges.

In his findings he described an organisation with a failure of collective leadership, where the governance was not up to standard, finance needed urgent attention and with a culture that was hierarchical and bullying.

We had to deal with that.

But as essential as it was, we were clear that our challenge was not just to sort out the council.

The mayoral mandate was to lead the city.

We developed our understanding of Bristol as a collective endeavour.

That what people get from Bristol is not the result of decisions made by any single organisation.

You do not pull a lever in an education department or a school and get a straight line to an education or life outcome.

Rather people sit at the intersection of a vast spectrum of organisations, making and ducking decisions.

To illustrate the point, a primary school teacher said to me that if he could make one intervention for education then he would ensure every child had a kitchen table.

He did not talk about the education system itself, he talked about children’s wider lives.

I took that as meaning a home with space to do work, and a place for a family to come together, in which there was enough food to eat.

This complexity speaks to our interdependence.

No single city, organisation, or sector can flourish alone.

Before I was elected, I wrote to our Local Enterprise Partnership.

It had a strategy that stressed skills but nowhere talked about health.

I argued skills are great but count for nothing if people are at home with back pain and depression.

Health was not just an issue for the NHS, it was a key economic issue.

I asked “what would it mean to the West of England economy if we were able to say we had the most well workforce in Europe, with the fewest numbers of a days of absenteeism?”

In turn, health outcomes depend on the start that children get in life – homes, the quality of parental employment and access to nutritional food, and extra-curricular activities.

The social is the economic, is the health, is the political.

Through the mayoral mandate, we have sought to find a way of leading that works with this interdependence, across the wider determinants of city outcomes, rather than leading in line with government finance, cabinet delegations, and the way public services are organised.

In 2017 I convened our first City Gathering.

The idea was to bring together those people in the city who shaped big budgets, and had reach into people’s lives.

70 to 75 people turned up from health, the private sector, further and higher education, schools, the voluntary, community and faith sectors, and unions.

My office did a back of the envelope calculation.

There was approximately £6 billion worth of spending represented in the room, and between us we employed around 70 thousand people.

We talked about the expertise in the room, our hopes for Bristol, and our interdependencies.

I fed back on the power in the room, and posed a question:

“If we all, this morning, agreed to focus our collective efforts on a small number of shared outcomes, what could we not do?”

It is a process that launched our Bristol One City Plan that sets out what we want Bristol to be in 2050 and the sequence of annual goals and outcomes that we need to deliver to become that city.

And we now have those City Gatherings every six months and they are attended by around 500 people.

Our former Chief Constable Andy Marsh once said to me over dinner that “world class public sector leadership is not about what you control, but what you influence”.

We have described this as the move from city government to city governance.

City government is the disproportionate focus on the local authority, city governance works to get alignment between all those place shaping organisations, systems, and cultures.


Another feature of this complexity is the tendency for cities to be contradictory.

Mayors have to navigate and resist the temptation to indulge or be forced into over-simplification.

The hauling down of the Colston statue in Bristol in June 2020 is an example of why this is important.

I was challenged to condemn the Black Lives Matter protest as a whole.

I was challenged to condemn those individuals who toppled the statue.

I was challenged to condemn the police.

I was challenged to condemn the football lads who organised a rally to protect the nearby Cenotaph the following weekend.

I was even – as a black, working class mayor – challenged by some white, middle class people to apologise for slavery itself.

My response to the Colston Statue itself is pretty well documented, but let me tell you about something that is less well known: the visit that I made to the football lad who had organised the Cenotaph rally.

He had called both of Bristol’s football firms and the firms of surrounding towns and cities.

He had called the Hells Angels to turn up.

So he was – is – connected.

And they surrounded the Cenotaph, and anti-racism protestors also turned up.

Some described his rally as a far-right rally.

My cousin is a football lad and knew the organiser.

Long story short, my chief of staff and I went to meet him.

Our priority was to hold the city together – and we wanted to understand him.

He stressed he was not racist, that he was not far-right.

We talked about motivation.

He didn’t like ANTIFA but he mostly talked about housing and jobs.

I asked him what was happening for the guys who turned out.

He said:

“Marv, they feel like they are losing their city”

I said:

“They are losing their city, but they aren’t losing it to migrants, they’re losing it to house prices”

Then his wife came to offer us a cup of tea.

She was – is – black.

As I was about to leave he wanted to show me a picture.

It was a picture of his wife and I from 2016, just after I was elected.

He still had it on his phone.

It is complicated.

And mayors must hold cities together in the face of complexity and contradiction, and avoid the simplistic plays to subsets of the whole population.


As of this moment I am doing well in accumulating the number of dictators I have been compared to.

I have been likened to another Joseph – Stalin – and Kim Jong Un.

Polpot has been thrown in the mix.

One local campaigner – a Labour Party member – said I was behaving like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and last year an opposition councillor warned council officers that a “I was simply following orders” defence would not protect them.

Chamberlain got this himself around 150 years ago, being called ‘a monopoliser and a dictator’.

So think it’s OK.

It comes with the territory.

The truth is the mayoral model offers a visibility of leadership that is critical to democratic accountability.

Rather than taking the cover of an anonymous group in a committee room, the mayor is responsible – even if sometimes quite unfairly so.

Journalists interrogate me, campaigners target me, the public ask of me.

Some say they are concerned about the concentration of executive power in the Mayor’s hands.

But here is the counter to that:

First, as I said before, the mayor does not have absolute power – there are many points of sovereignty in the city

That power can be used to convene and ask – in Bristol at least – in a way that doesn’t seem to have been possible here before.

And third, the level of accountability that comes with the mayoral profile must bring with it power or else the mayor is unfairly held accountable for decisions they did not make, while the actual decision makers are able to avoid accountability.

Relationship with national government

Previous Cratus conversations have touched on the limitations of national government in general, and the dysfunctionality of its relationship with local government and cities in particular.

And I will share that, as a first-time politician, I have been shocked by the ability of national government to add uncertainty to an already complex and unpredictable world.

And it seems to be done with more much more confidence than self-awareness.

The UK is one of the most heavily centralised countries in Europe, if not the world.

In 1970, 60% of local government cash was determined by central government.

By the mid-2000s, despite devolution to Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh, as well as to the Mayor of London, this figure had risen to 85%.

In 2016, the year I took office, 91 pence out of every pound of taxation was controlled by the Treasury.

We urgently need a new sovereignty settlement across the UK in general, and for cities in particular.

Government structures will never be the top of the national agenda – but local authorities and cities know and say that we have untapped potential.

Work with us, agree the vision, plan how to achieve it, develop a line of predictable finance to underpin delivery of those plans.

Then we can realise that potential, to ensure we have a post-covid recovery, and one that is inclusive, decarbonised, and resilient.

We have got to get the basics right.

In 2017 I opened the local paper to learn that:

“Bristol is still in the dark over rail electrification as Government cancels upgrade plans in south Wales.

“The DfT have already placed a pause on electrification between Bristol and Bath, as well as between Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway stations, as it looked to tackle the ballooning £2.8 billion costs of the upgrade programme across the line.”

I had not had a call.

The article said Ministers had been hinting, but I cannot work with hints.

It is no way to plan for a major part of national infrastructure.

In 2019 I stood on the government’s stage at MIPIM, an international investment conference, to talk about our Temple Quarter regeneration opportunity.

11,000 homes, 22,000 jobs, and £1.6 billion per year to our economy.

It was introduced as one of the most exciting regeneration opportunities in Europe.

Despite universal approval and support from the highest level, we have not been about to get someone, somewhere in government to send the email releasing the money needed for the renovation of Temple Meads to kickstart it.

This uncertainty can make us a less dependable partner for others.

The University of Bristol are building a brand new £300 million campus and L&G are investing £350 million on Temple Island, all right next the station.

We have kept things going, but the uncertainty from government is not helpful.

Of course we now have “Levelling Up”, “Build Back Better”, and “Devolution”.

How much time have local authorities spent moving between trying to work out what those phrases mean, trying to influence what they mean, and trying to position themselves to be on the receiving end of any spending that might occur when someone, somewhere locks down what they mean.

It is not a good use of our time.

I won’t pretend that Michael Gove and I share a complete worldview.

But where we will come together is in the need to get things done.

Mayors – as Michael Bloomberg emphasises – must be pragmatic.

My hope is that the new Secretary of State grabs this uncertainty – this opportunity for reform – by the scruff of the neck.

Better still, that he works with Core Cities, the LGA City Regions Board, the M9, and the regional powerhouses to agree definitions, vision, and a plan.

Let me echo the challenge I gave to my own city: what could we not do if we agreed and aligned our priorities across all spheres of governance.

Key to unlocking this alignment will be overcoming the current model of funding for councils, that is too often akin to a game of scrambles.

In my school, when a kid had one sweet left and eight kids wanted it, rather than making a decision they might throw it in the air and shout scrambles.

Then we would all fight for it.

No rules – finger stamping allowed.

Survival of the fittest.

Government do the same.

There was recently an initiative against child hunger.

Government put up a few million pounds.

And asked for the whole country to fight for it.

Bristol came away – or at least our children came away – with nothing.

We had our fingers stamped on.

We lost at scrambles.

But even if we’d been successful, I would not be satisfied to feed Bristol’s children because, in winning the funding, we would have kept resources away from Plymouth’s children.

That is not a national strategy.

It is not a plan.

It is not leadership.

We need a win-win framework for national investment.

And too often the funding is short term and broken up between governments departments who do not seem coordinated.

It is down to local government with limited resource to fight for resources and play outside-half to a national machine that feels like a collection of disconnected pots of money bolted together.

We are additionally vulnerable to this because UK Cities have no way of directly raising revenue, other than the centrally controlled council tax.

Unlike cities around the world, we have no land taxes, no taxes at the point of sale.

All city-driven revenues end up with the Exchequer and only a small percentage makes its way back to cities as part of the annual handout.

In his day, Joseph Chamberlain didn’t wait for national government.

When elected Mayor of Birmingham, he quickly took control of the utilities and waterworks to improve health, environment, and public services.

Alongside the wider social reform agenda, these municipalisations saved lives and predated the post-war nationalisations which accompanied the establishment of our NHS.

Today cities are not waiting on government.

We need our national government.

We will be less than we could be if we fail to organise that national alignment.

But we are not making government enlightenment a prerequisite to our own action.

We have the M9.

Two weeks ago I was at the UK Core Cities’ annual away day.

We are working on a national offer to government on housing.

We want to take a solutions focussed approach, we all want to get homes built, so how do we work together to get the right kinds of homes in the right places?

Let’s plan together.

It’s a solutions focussed approach that I want to take into my new role as the Chair of the LGA City Regions Board.

Things can work well.

In 2019, Bristol, Newport, and Cardiff convened local authorities to form the Western Gateway.

We now stretch from Swindon to Swansea, Gloucester to North Somerset, with the core cities of Bristol and Cardiff at the centre.

We are the new powerhouse, a functional economic area of 4.4 million people that now sits alongside the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands engine.

The glimmer of light was, from a bottom-up creation, national government came forward to back it.

Sajid Javid and Alun Cairns were central to the launch.

It felt – and feels – like we are approaching a partnership.

Money was put into the secretariat and we’re working on an economic strategy.

I should mention, it was one of the initiatives Lord Kerslake was so helpful in getting off of the ground.

The Prime Minister has emphasised the role of local leadership as part of ‘levelling up’.

We accept the invitation, but:

Ensure cabinet members meet regularly with the Core Cities and the M9.

Ensure the LGA’s annual conference is anchored into the PM’s annual calendar, and cabinet members build strong relationships with the relevant LGA boards.

Meet with the powerhouses.

The opportunity for national alignment is there. Let’s take it.


Now I want to raise the international, because the importance of local and city leadership is not limited to national politics.

Global governance, with its over-reliance on national governments, is becoming increasingly threadbare.

Many of us know it to be true.

At the Global Parliament of Mayors in Durban, in 2019, Ed Johnson, the former Mayor of Asbury Park, said to me: “we have the best modern of global governance that the 1960s could ask for – the problem is, it is 2019.”

The COP26 climate conference in November threatens to further expose this.

My fear is that national governments will remain unable to move beyond high-profile, headline commitments to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies, and get to clear, measurable plans with proper funding and a clear timeline for delivery.

Cities consume around 70% of all energy and generate three-quarters of global carbon emissions.

These figures will only increase as cities continue to grow, with estimates that 68% of people will live in urban areas by 2050.

And it is in cities where most people will be affected by climate change, as heatwaves threaten residents in city centres, and rising sea levels and extreme rainstorms cause flash flooding.

At the same time, compact cities can offer more sustainable lifestyles.

Higher-density living can result in more efficient living and smaller carbon footprints.

A recent paper from the World Bank, Pancakes to Pyramids, set out how we should plan in and up, rather than sprawling out.

So surely cities will be central to any coherent strategy, and yet they are being passively excluded from COP26.

ICLEI – a global network of 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development – normally have over 150 passes.

So far, they have 20.

We cannot do this without cities.

As environmentalists and politicians race each other to the soonest target date for carbon neutrality, collectively, we are all only just starting to understand the cost of this ambition and what it takes to realise it.

That is where city leaders are crucial: we know what it takes on the ground.

Bristol is a member of the UK Core Cities, a network of Britain’s 11 largest urban areas.

Collectively, across our urban areas, we account for around 20 million people and 26% of national economic output.

Yet there has been no government effort to convene us to devise a coherent plan for decarbonisation.

This is a recipe for underperformance at the very moment humanity has no room for error.

And it is a mistake that is repeated time and again.

From migration to urban security, to pandemics to making corporations pay their taxes, the critical challenges we face today are increasingly post-national.

Solutions are out of reach of national governments working alone.

City governance could be a very effective political vehicle to operate in a post-national world.

In Bristol, we have seen how pandemic policy translates from the sterility of parliamentary debate into the reality of peoples’ lives in homes, schools, and workplaces.

We know that Brexit, a product of Westminster’s politics, is affecting our social-care sector and food supply, and will continue to create challenges in 2022.

Again, cities aren’t waiting. We are organising ourselves.

More than 300 international city networks have already emerged.

Some are geographically organised, such as Core Cities, Eurocities, and the US Conference of Mayors.

Some are organised around common issues, such as the Mayors Migration Council or the C40’s Climate Leadership Group.

Others, such as the Global Parliament of Mayors, are trying to strengthen cities’ role within national and international governance structures.

In 2018 I spoke at the United Nations during the final negotiations of its Global Compact on Migration.

As the first mayor to be invited to speak, I argued that cities should be given a stronger, more formal role in setting migration policy.

Most migrants leave cities, transit through them, travel to them, and return to them — including Bristol.

As with climate, cities can provide leadership and expertise.

The UN’s compact had direct consequences for the lives of Bristol people, many of whom, like me, are first- or second-generation migrants.

When I was first elected in 2016, I did not anticipate how central international leadership would be to my mayoralty.

But it is a natural extension of the argument for the devolution of more powers to individual cities.

It is not enough to be able to shape what happens within the city.

Serving Bristol means taking account of, and helping to shape, the national and international context and forces that affect life in the city.

None of this is a wish for, or prediction of, the demise of national governments.

Rather it is an argument for the missing piece of the puzzle in national and international governance.

National governments will need to make space, and international organisations will need to redirect much of their energy and finance through cities.

My colleague on the World Economic Forum’s network of Global Future Councils, the scholar and writer Gregg Clark, says that we are living in the fifth decade of the century of the city.

It is of critical importance, for all our sakes, that national and international governance catches up with that fact.

Making city leaders equal partners in shaping national and international policy will maximise our chances of tackling the major challenges of our time.