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Concentration of power in London is ‘UK disease’ says outgoing Bristol mayor

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Marvin Rees, the outgoing mayor of Bristol, has called for more power to be put in the hands of city leaders to help tackle issues such as decaying infrastructure and the climate emergency.

Rees, who is nearing the end of an eight-year stint, argued that the concentration of power in London was a “UK disease” that was curbing progress across the country.

He also said he believed the decision by the people of Bristol to scrap the post of elected mayor was a mistake, and he reflected, with a degree of scepticism, on one of the most high-profile events of his time in power: the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston.

Rees, who became the first black mayor of a European city, spoke as tenants evacuated from Bristol’s oldest tower block amid safety fears prepared for Christmas and the new year living in a hotel or with friends and relatives.

He said Barton House told a broader story. “It talks to us about the challenge facing places like Bristol. A lot of our physical infrastructure is towards end of life. We face some really big decisions about how we’re going to keep the city together physically. We need to fundamentally re-think the way cities are put together.”

The mayor said there was too much control in London. “If I was a minister and wanted something to happen in the country, I wouldn’t go into a room in Westminster and ask some Oxbridge graduates and a couple of thinktankers. I’d convene the leaders of the biggest cities in the UK. If you unleash the power of our cities, we’ll crack on.”

Rees, who is chair of the Core Cities UK alliance, said decarbonising the world needed to be done at a city level. “The battle against climate change will be won or lost in cities. Most of the world lives in cities today. It will be two-thirds by 2050.

“National governments will go to Cop and may or may not come up with agreements, but there is a level of political leadership at the city level that is much more dynamic, much more delivery focused, in which we can transform the systems around people’s lives, decarbonise those systems.

“The maths say the cities level is where it’s at. If you decarbonise the world’s cities, you solve most of the world’s problems. Do you need national leaders to decarbonise cities? Well it would help. But if you can get the money into the hands of mayors you’d go a long way to solving the problem.”

Rees criticised the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, for suggesting that the focus needed to turn from cities to towns. “Of course you should pay attention to cities. It’s where most people live. With due respect to [the Somerset town of] Taunton, it’s Manchester and Liverpool that get all the mentions.”

However, the city has voted to scrap the post of directly elected mayor. He said: “What can you do? On the night of the vote I said I hope I’m wrong because I think it’s a bad move for the city.”

Undoubtedly, the event that grabbed the most headlines during Rees’s time was the toppling of the Colston statue and its dumping in the harbour.

Rees described what happened to the statue as “incredibly important, symbolically important”. He said: “There’s a statue of a slaver. Do I want it? Of course I don’t. I’m Jamaican. He could well have owned one my ancestors. I feel that.”

But he said it was important that it was not just a symbol.

He said: “There’s a sober reality [that] we can’t live on symbolic acts. In the fundamentals of tackling the drivers of structural race inequality, the statue is not important. Those kind of symbolic acts when they are not attached to actual policy are more about the emotional status of members of privileged groups than they are about the actual political economic status of people from oppressed groups.

“The indulgence around the statue I suggest was more about white people than black people.”

The mayor said he was more interested in a counter demonstration that happened after the statue fell, which was portrayed by some as a far-right event. “I had a feeling it wasn’t far-right. I’m not saying there weren’t racist people there but I don’t think it was that simple.”

Rees and a couple of colleagues went to talk to the organisers. “I found a guy who was intelligent, who had written a paper on the history of class in Bristol. We talked about policy, about housing delivery.

“I felt more comfortable with him then I did when I met the Colston Four in terms of my heart connectivity, the world we experienced. He had more in common with my white mum than the Colston four and all those other people.”

If he knows what he’ll do next, Rees isn’t saying.

“I’m not just a politician. Mum lives in the same house we moved [to] in 1978. I’m a mixed race kid who grew up on benefits, lived on a council estate, and happened to have fought my way into a position I should never have been in.”

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