LSE Cities: Old Cities, New Ambitions

I was recently interviewed by the London School of Economics’ new publication, Old Cities, New Ambitions. The LSE Cities’ European Cities Programme works with Bloomberg Philanthropies government innovation programme and the LSE to build a network of partners to support the region’s urban leaders.

An abridged version was published, alongside exchanges with the Mayors/Leaders of Leuven, Glasgow, Bratislava, Athens, and Amsterdam, but I also wanted to take the opportunity to share my fuller answers below.

Mayor Marvin Rees is pictured, sitting at a desk, smiling, holding a copy of the LSE Cities publication 'Old Cities, New Ambitions: The Future of Urban Europe'.

What first drew you into city politics?

My Mum’s experiences and my part in them shapes my politics. As an unmarried white woman with a brown baby, she faced snobbery, judgement, and disrespect. I saw that as a mixed-race kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.

I had no intention of going into city politics. I actively dismissed a Labour Party workshop about Mayors in 2011, thinking that change was best pursued in Westminster. But then, Bristol was the only city to vote to have a Mayor. Marg Hickman, then a city councillor, told me to put myself forward. That, and the memory of a Yale mentor, David Berg, telling me that, like his friend Howard Dean, I might find “much more fulfilment in executive politics”, made me go for it. And, the more I have stepped into it, the more I have understood the growing significance of cities in general and city leadership in particular.

How do you think more people could be encouraged to get involved in city politics?

You’ve got to do it on purpose. My gateway was through Operation Black Vote, thanks to Lord Simon Wooley, Winsome-Grace Cornish, and Ashok Viswanathan recognising a democratic deficit and running a programme that reached out to Black and Asian talent and set up a structure to connect that talent with political opportunity.

Parties need to reach out but I am also clear that excluded people need the self-agency to step up. What I realised, myself, was that anyone waiting for the perfect invitation from the perfect party to get involved in the perfect political system will be waiting a long time. We have to be prepared to bring our imperfect selves to imperfect structures. I often hear people say that it’s not for them – but my challenge is that maybe it’s not about you. Maybe it’s about something bigger, and the times require the skills you have, whether or not you are always comfortable offering them. If people don’t step up then it’s left to the same old suspects. That’s true for voting in elections, as well as for standing for office.

And, actually, new people coming in can help change the discourse around politics in cities and countries. We have a collective responsibility for the thing that we want people to be involved in.

What’s the most encouraging change you’ve seen during your time in office?

In Bristol, it’s our city’s increased willingness to begin to talk about race, class, poverty, and inequality – and to understand and not hide from them.

What has been your hardest day in office so far?

It’s not a day, but more of a realistic realisation: that our city couldn’t be fixed in our two terms (eight years) in terms of ending child hunger, completely decarbonising our city, and building all the new homes we need to end the housing crisis. It’s not about days, or major events, but the underlying systems and trends. But there’s not been a day that we haven’t had our shoulder to the wheel, making progress – we’ve got 11,000 new homes built already (to April 2022), have plans for another £630 million of clean energy investment, and have supported the infrastructure needed to feed more children during the pandemic and during school holidays. But there’s always more to do.

What’s been your happiest day in office so far?

Every day that I get to be there when families move into new homes. Making sure that people have a safe, secure, and affordable home is the single most significant intervention that we can make for health, poverty, climate, and prosperity. I took Lisa Nandy, the shadow Levelling Up Secretary, to see where we’d built new council homes on a brownfield site. We met people who had moved there from an overcrowded tower block. They were married, with two girls under the age of three, and had just gone into a warm home, with solar panels, a garden, and more space. Everything in their lives had gone in the right direction when they got the key for the door, the likely success of marriage, mental health, educational prospects, everything. That’s repeated across our city every day, as new homes are completed. It’s good justice but it’s also good business, since healthy people use fewer public services.

What political power that you don’t have would you most like to have?

I would most like more financial certainty, far more than more political power. Local government funding is inadequate, short term, competitive, uncoordinated/chaotic, and too often costly to access. Quite rightly, it’s been likened to the Hunger Games.

There are two big challenges that have to change. First, that places need local government to be more than a collection of services for vulnerable people, as important as that is. We have a place-making and economy-making role. It takes time and resources to lead. As our resources are squeezed, that role is undermined, which further undermines productivity and economic performance.  

Second, that when local government is destabilised by the funding model, we are a less stable partner – for business, other public sector bodies, and the VCSE sector. When we can’t plan, that undermines everyone’s ability to plan and undermines our city’s attractiveness to inward investment, and to coordinate on issues that are crucial across sectors. Health, housing, workforce resilience, and education, are all are all issues of critical importance to the public and private sectors. Too often, they are considered as single issues nationally with no reference/ability to take account of city leadership’s need to deal with their interdependencies.

Which political leader do you most admire and why?

I don’t have one person that I most admire, since I admire lots of people, but let me highlight Malcolm X. In a private conversation with Coretta Scott King, he explained that if “people understood what the alternative was […] they would be more inclined to listen to your husband.” I heard Malcolm embracing his role as an unpalatable alternative, making the previous unpalatability of Martin suddenly more attractive – and thus more likely to help deliver change. That was undoubtedly part of why liberal America gravitated toward King, and I admire Malcolm X’s self-awareness and sacrifice.

Which European city are you most inspired by and why?

When you asked this, I first started thinking about infrastructure – but not just in Europe. There are cities where this can be admired. Zürich on how they deal with waste and Malmö on how they are feeding a heat network with heat from processed waste. Paris has incredible integrated transport, so does London, and Bogotá are pushing bus rapid transit and have one of the largest fleets of electric buses in Latin America. Housing. Copenhagen’s green and blue spaces are special, and so is Singapore’s green planning.  

But, actually, I also look at cities’ values. One of the biggest tests of those, at the moment, is how somewhere treats the poorest and most vulnerable. I admire the Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, who I’ve worked with through the Mayor’s Migration Council, for his work supporting refugees. I also admire Joanne Anderson, the first woman of African heritage to be elected Mayor of a major European city. I admire Liverpool for that. And also Joanne for her work, including on the Liverpool Against Racism festival.

What advice would you give to an incoming mayor?

You can’t boil the ocean, so try to be humble and gracious. I visited New York City shortly after I was elected and saw Michael Berkowitz, who was then at Rockefeller. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at being Mayor. His advice was “that’s normal”. He said that for the first year of so in office, the Bloomberg administration felt like they had their mouth around a fire hydrant. The point is, it’s going to take time to begin to get your head around how events and forces come at you as the leader of a city. And even then, I would add, victories come with losses.  

Appointing a good team of people who combine competence, trustworthiness, and emotional intelligence will be key too. Make sure you pick people who are smarter than you.