The Bristol Cable caught up with the Mayor of Bristol to hear about his attitude towards central government over budget cuts, his vision for the future of local authorities, and approaches to progressive politics.
Interviewer: Alec Saelens
Video production: James Mackay
The Bristol Cable:
Hello Marvin, Mayor of the city of Bristol,
Thanks for receiving the Bristol cable for this interview. Some of these questions will have been crowdsourced from our social media.
Last week you proposed a difficult budget that was approved at the full council meeting. For those who don’t really know can you explain what the strategy behind this budget is.
First of all there’s the overarching framework, it’s really important for us to understand, we must pass a balanced budget. We can’t spend more than we get in and we can’t just dig into our reserves. Our reserves are there, and we have to use some reserves. But essentially we have to work with the financial envelope we have been given by government.
We’re not central government that can expand and contract the money supply.
Then within that the strategy is to make sure that we are delivering on our key pledges and also delivering on our wider themes, which are about making sure we are a city in which no people are left behind.
You have made challenging inequality a central plank of your administration and yet the budget has put forward some cuts to crucial services, such as social care, transport. What have you got to say to those people who say you’re contradicting you’re electoral pledges?
It would be a contradiction if I had a bunch of money and I was choosing not to spend it on the things I want. Politics is not a case of you step into a room with a blank piece of paper and someone says ‘what you do want to do’ and you can do it. And there are no blocks and no limits.
It doesn’t work like that. There are blocks and challenges to what we want get done everywhere. That’s the grown up world we’re in.
I’ve made these commitments, this makes it more difficult. Of course it does. Everyone acknowledges that.
But authorities all over the country are facing the same challenges. Up in Liverpool they were talking about going through a referendum on a 10% council tax increase, Surrey famously were talking about 15%.
Local governments are being hit very hard by governments austerity, and some of that might be political strategy on their behalf. I don’t know.
A lot of people are expecting a real challenge to central government with regards to the cuts to local authorities. And this is something that labour voters would have expected and something that the labour leader has very much been putting forward. A lot of people are expecting you to stand up a bit more to central government.
Tell me what it looks like to stand up to central government, what’s the visual picture of that?
You’ve talked about a strategy to bring core cities together…
Well, we’re doing that. We’re meeting the housing minister in March to talk about it, we’re making a deal. They want a million houses by 2020, and that’s what we’re working on. I just had a chat with Joe Anderson the Mayor of Liverpool the other day and said, when we go to this meeting we need to be able to say: ‘As core cities we will give you 400,000 of that 1 million new houses’ or whatever our number is, ‘but this is what we need from you to deliver it’. So we give them that list of things government needs to do to support us.
Unlocking finance, giving us power during the viability assessment process with private developers, how we can protect people in the private rented sector. Maybe even looking at rent controls at some point, because obviously national legislation doesn’t allow us to do so.
Do you feel like you’re being listened to by government?
Well we’ll find out. We don’t know yet.
People are looking up to you in order to have some idea of what kind of leadership challenge can be brought…
But what does that challenge look like? When working with core cities.
Essentially presenting the idea that it’s impossible to run a council with the cuts that are being imposed…
We’re saying that. Were saying that. Councils all over the country are saying that.
I suppose there is a question about how do you relate to central government and how do you best challenge central government. We can talk about this on another occasion but … As local government, how do you manage your relationship with central government?
I had a group in the other day who originally came into the organization protesting. And at the end of a chat what they actually wanted me to do was to get houses built. And you think about how much power central government have in relationship to local government in relation to central government.
We need the legislative support and we need the support raising the finance. The question I asked them was that in 2020… after they’d asked for the houses to be built for the particular issue, I said, it wouldn’t be any good for me to turn up in 2020 and say ‘I’m sorry we didn’t get any houses because we couldn’t get the support from central government, we didn’t get the legislative support and we didn’t get the release of finance. But I just want you to know that I went in the papers and I really stuffed the Tories’… What do we want?
In local government we’re in power, but I’m not a protest group, I’m the leader of a city and my job is to get things done, I’ve got to get houses, I’ve got to get school places, a fair admissions process. I’ve got to find out a way to continue to support Bristol’s businesses to trade internationally in the face of Brexit so that we can keep jobs here. I’ve got to find a way of making sure that businesses are coming here so that we get the business rates paid in, because we’re going to be totally business rate dependent along with council tax, so that we can pay for services we need for people. So I’ve got to find a way of working with government.
You know, being in the papers, telling people that they are… having a crack at national government, there may be a time when that needs to happen and we will challenge policy. But my deal is right now, ‘How do I make things happen for the people of Bristol?’
What do you reckon is the long-lasting impact in terms of the fabric of local authorities and the society that you support, what will be the consequences?
So I’m going to say that it’s a crisis of local government, but what I would also say is that every crisis is made up of opportunity and threat. Now the threat is that with the – and it’s really important to say – the machinery of national government is not the same as the machinery of local government, all right? We talk about government, but they’re different beasts and they work in different ways.
I think that the threat is that this rips the heart out of local government. And we go past a tipping point. That 38 degrees point of no return. But I think also there’s an opportunity, and what I would say is while people are lamenting about protecting local government, I grew up in this city and local government didn’t work well for me. So there was no kind of day, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago when this thing was purring along and poor people were getting all the services and feeling respected and it was holding society together and you know, this time didn’t exist.
So there is an opportunity in the middle of all this to ask some really deep questions about what is the role of local government? What’s it for? I’d actually begin to call it in a city, call it city government, because I think we need to elevate it. ‘Local’ makes it a second class democratic institution. And we’re pushing very hard at the moment. I’m actually up in Birmingham tomorrow talking about city sovereignty, because we’re saying that local politics is not second class, we’re not second class to back bench MPs. We’re doing real things for people, delivering real things, walking past people on the way to work.
The people who feel disgruntled about the impact of these cuts on local authorities and feel almost a sense of disempowerment with regards to their ability to stand up to government, what would you say to these Bristolians who feel angry and want to actually do something, anything, to help?
Should people feel frustrated and angry? I think they should. They should feel frustrated and angry. But you’ve got to direct your fire power where it needs to go and recognise that people are, you know, people pursue their aims in different ways. And like I say, we’re in power in Bristol. I could spend my time waving placards and going up to London, would it make a difference if a minister just says, ‘Well, we’ll go and deal with a city that’s not giving me problems now’. That wouldn’t necessarily help Bristol. And if it doesn’t help Bristol and it doesn’t help me, it doesn’t help poor people in the city.
I guess a lot of expectation is that the voluntary or charitable or community organisations and sectors can really deliver the services that the council can no longer provide for itself. So when they most likely rely on their funding from the council, from government, in order to be able to run, how will they be able to manage without this kind of funding and where will people find the money in order to be able to sustain stepping into what local government can’t provide?
I recognise the challenge. I’m not saying it’s easy, I mean just to acknowledge it, a lot of organisations are running on fumes, I absolutely recognise that. But then one of the things that we have to do is look for alternative sources of finance.
I think there’s a big challenge for the business community. Someone said to me a few years ago, ‘riots are not good for inward investment’, so there’s an interest in businesses in becoming place shapers as well.
The other thing we need to do is again continue to improve our connectivity to sources of finance outside of local government, whether it’s local government entering into revenue raising activities, or whether we’re linking up with foundations, but it’s not easy, I’m not claiming it’s easy. I’m not claiming the budget is in line with one I would have wanted. And you know, I didn’t go into government to cut. But we also do need to say there is an opportunity to think about, ‘What is local government?’
And like I said, African Americans were saying this in the sixties, particularly a lot of the black liberation theologians, the aim is not to get poor people onto a life dependent on government services, that’s politically disempowering. It’s very important we have services for people and put thought in there, but we do not define our lives in terms of public services. That’s not what we want.
It’s not what the middle classes are doing when then move to Bristol, then become activists. They’re not coming here to get government services and they wouldn’t want to live that life.
We were talking about the element of gentrification which is obviously an element of concern, making Bristol a place that is appealing to business, and business having a place in order to be able to create the kind of environments that can provide the type of services that are no longer available, because of these cuts. This city is going to be reshaping itself. Who is likely to fall down by the way side?
It’s a massive challenge. I mean the Easton I grew up in is unrecognisable today. I think the challenge is, and there is a challenge within progressive politics in Bristol, and I’ll lay it out like this. A number of people who are really vocal about it are actually on the front end of gentrification, and all we need is a bit of self awareness within.. you know, I’ve sometimes suggested and don’t necessarily do a good line talking about race and class.
So what of the provocative things I think is worth of city conversation, sometimes people leading progressive movements, I’d say, are a bigger threat to anti-racism for example than overt racists. And I say this because I’ve been in situations where, and it happened at the night Justice for Judah the other day. So there were some people there, great right, there had the right political positions, they are on left of the political spectrum, but then two of them in a row stood up and said ‘it’s not about race. I get it too. i’m an anarchist and I experience violence.’ And we had to say ‘look, hold on,’ alright. So what happens is, people come to Bristol, they are politically progressive, they have the right positions on the environment, on inequality, but in the movements they set up, there aren’t any working class voices, and there aren’t any voices from Black and Asian people. And in that sense, they recreate the very racial exclusion that they say they are fighting against. They begin to totally dominate the space of progressive politics.
The spaces where we would have the conversations about race and class, those conversations begin to get squashed, in the face of their own political priorities, which you know has a passing reference to race and class, but doesn’t really hold at its core. So the voice of the poor get squashed within those progressive movements, which is a challenge. And I’m not saying, its not an accusation, it’s just an interesting area that I think would be interesting to explore.
I guess this is a good segue into the last question that I’ll be asking, which is from a personal friend of mine, Esam, who is an asylum seeker. He is wondering, really, what Bristol will be doing about the issue of welcoming refugees and the potential for standing up to the home office.
Well we’ve just written a letter to government, because actually I was a bit irritated to put it mildly, that when I say ministers talking about no longer accepting children, they referenced local government and made it sound like they were protecting local government from that. So we’ve written to government and said ‘hold your horses’ because actually we’ve said we will take children, and we are willing to take children still.
So we’ve actually got a very good situation at the moment where we have contacts in the city. Working a lot through faith groups, mosques as well, and churches, and other community based organisations. And we’ve been asking for people who would come forward as a resource as it were, foster families and support families. Because what we don’t want to do is bring a child here. We stick them on a house on the edge of the city, no access to people with the same culture, the language, the food, and they end up isolated, experiencing racial hate crime, and you know, end up in a worst situation than they were. We are working on getting our resource together so we can bring people in. And the letter that we have sent to government says well ‘we have gone to this city’, and there is an openness. There is a compassion within this city that is not just based on fluffy mindedness, but actually which is about the mobilisation of real resources, the support structures that are needed for people to be coming here.
One last question, what are you most proud of so far about what you’ve done in the city, for the city?
I like the response we’ve had from government actually, if I can say. That I understand our reputation is changing. They know we want to get things done. And what we’re not… we’re focused on getting things done for the city more than we are having a political knock about.
And they’re a couple of incidents, you know I’ve had kids come in… I’ve just enjoyed being the Mayor. I mean, in that sense I’m still me, I’m just Marvin alright, but I know that there is something that goes along with my title. So if I visit my mum, my mum still lives on Stapleton road, I see people I’ve always known, and it demystifies political leadership in the city. And I think those are some of the most fulfilling moments. And in fact being at that Jamaican event on Saturday night was very fulfilling for me. There were a lot of older Jamaicans who said, all the stuff we went through in the sixties you know, we can see we’ve gotten something from it. And that was quite special.
I look forward to hearing about the event.
Yea, come to the big housing conversation, that’s the good one.
Alright. Thank you. Much appreciated.