Strong Role Models

An Interview with Marvin Rees:

By: Kit Cooper-Harrison

Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees

I’m Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol. It’s my responsibility to be the political lead for the city. I’ve always been interested in questions of poverty and fairness. I grew up in quite challenging circumstances and I wanted to make the world fairer. I managed to get to university and worked with a Tearfunded development agency, which is all about poverty, both internationally and in the UK. You really get insight that it’s not enough to go around picking up the pieces by doing aid work after the fact, you’ve got to get involved in the rules. Martin Luther King, in his letter A Time to Break Silence, told a story. He said we’re all called to play the good Samaritan, but someday we need to look at the very nature of the Jericho road that produces people who keep getting robbed and beaten.

What kind of city are we going to be? You can’t dictate the culture, but I think we have a set of city priorities. We talk a lot about inclusion and sustainability now in a way that we didn’t before. A focus on mental health, period poverty, hungry children, these are all things that have come about because of the emphasis we’ve put on inclusion and equality. Hunger didn’t start in 2016 when we started a drive of making sure no child is hungry in Bristol but now it is one of the most prominent efforts going on in the city. What did Joe Biden say? “Don’t tell me what your values are, show me your budget”. There’s a lot of talk about values, but what we’ve done is put money and time into it.

[COVID-19] has put the local authority into a permanent new state of increased need and reduced revenue. That is a major challenge because many of the interventions that we as a council make are about the most vulnerable. If you’re wealthy, the most aware that you are of the council is when you buy a ticket for parking or pay council tax, but if you think about vulnerable adults, children’s support services, children in the care system, mental health support, the most vulnerable people in the city need the council the most. People keep saying that COVID is indiscriminate. COVID is not indiscriminate, COVID hits vulnerable people. It can impact everyone, but it has most access to people in overcrowded housing, people with pre-existing health conditions, and those tend to be people on lower incomes.

I come from a mental health background. I worked in Public Health when it was in the National Health Service and when it came over to the local authority. I was the manager of a programme looking at race inequalities in health. The numbers are stark which is partly a result of people not getting access to early intervention, but also the treatment people get if they do need services. You’ll see the numbers begin to increase for anybody who’s a member of a protected characteristic. I would also say for people who are not in protected characteristics, it is similar for white poor people because of the social conditions: poor housing, uncertain employment, absence of food. We know that it’s going up, because we know hunger has gone up during COVID. We’ll see all those injustices writ large.

Something like 40% of population health outcomes are down to social determinants, less than 20% are down to health services. We emphasise a lot on health services and you see this around COVID, a heavy emphasis on the national health service and less emphasis on social determinants. It’s the wrong way round. Asher Craig, my Deputy Mayor, has been leading Thrive, a programme to improve wellbeing among the population. We look at the social determinants of health. It is about delivering affordable homes that are not cold, tackling food poverty, paying a living wage so that people can have a decent life. Tackling those social determinants of health is the way we are really investing.

Don’t let fear of failure stop you trying to do things. That nearly robbed me of my life when I was a child, I was so terrified of failing that I wouldn’t try to do things. You don’t lose your fear of failure, we’re all scared to fail, but what you don’t allow that fear of failure to do is immobilise you. It was the moment that I said, you know what, let me just give it a go – if it works, it works. When I found that space, I was able to put effort in and begin to release myself. My cousin says that if you’re not falling over on your snowboard, you’re not getting better. If you’re not failing, you’re not progressing because by definition you are trying to be more than who you are today.

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