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State of the City 2021 Marvin Rees

Festival of the Future City
State of the City Address 2021

Written by Marvin Rees

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Last week, our city faced the tragedy of a young man killed on our streets.

I extend my respects to his family and do want to share that I have received numerous messages from people telling me that he was, at heart, a good young person who just needed support.

I had actually met him myself and had invited him to come for a cup of tea but sadly we never got to do that.  

His tragic death should remind us that we all have different experiences of Bristol and we must respect those differences if we are to build an inclusive city.

I have some thanks to give now.

Thank you, Hugh Brady for again hosting my annual State of the City address. We wish you all the best for your next chapter in life as the Vice Chancellor of Imperial College London.

The work you have done to develop a civic university and deliver the new Temple Quarter campus, leaves a real legacy.

And thank you to Andrew Kelly.

Andrew has been CEO of Festival of Ideas – now Bristol Ideas – for 29 years.

He has contributed hugely to Bristol’s cultural life and the quality of our public discourse, making Bristol better and raising our profile on the national and international stage. 

And I also want to thank you, Bristol.

This is my first State of the City since being re-elected.

The mayoral position isn’t mine.

It’s loaned to me by you, and I thank you for entrusting it into my care again.


We are 18 months on from the first Covid lockdown.

From the beginning we explained we were not just dealing with the virus itself, but the consequences of the actions needed to stem the spread of the virus.

We have seen the impact – death and bereavement, the disruption to education, loneliness, hunger, mental health, domestic violence and job losses.

At the same time, our underlying inequalities have been compounded as the most marginalised have been hit first and hardest and then found themselves least well placed to benefit from any recovery.     

We will be living with the effects of the pandemic for decades.

That makes it all the more important that we don’t allow the pain to be for nothing.

There are three interdependent lessons we have the opportunity to learn, if we choose to.

The first reinforces points I shared in my address last year.

I cited Richard Horton from The Lancet. 

He argued we aren’t suffering merely from a pandemic but a syndemic, in which two categories of disease are interacting: the communicable disease, Covid 19, and the non-communicable diseases that cluster around poverty and inequality. 

He said:

‘The most important consequence of seeing COVID-19 as a syndemic is to underline its social origins. The vulnerability of older citizens; Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities; and key workers who are commonly poorly paid with fewer welfare protections, points to a truth so far barely acknowledged…. that unless governments devise policies and programmes to reverse profound disparities, our societies will never be truly COVID secure.

‘The economic crisis that is advancing towards us will not be solved by a drug or a vaccine. Nothing less than national revival is needed. Approaching COVID-19 as a syndemic will invite a larger vision, one encompassing education, employment, housing, food, and environment.

And so we must have that broader vision.

If we don’t then we will remain individually and collectively vulnerable to future health shocks with all their consequences.

And it’s this collective vulnerability that takes tackling social inequality beyond an issue of social justice and makes it an issue of national security.

In this respect, we can learn from Bristol’s past. 

In 1832, Cholera killed 584 Bristolians from a population of 96,000.

The poorest were hit hardest, the impact exacerbated by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in slums and workhouses.

We came to learn that while water was the means for transmission it was the drivers and consequences of poverty that were the accelerants.

Both then and today, the resilience and weakness of population health are not just bio-medical questions, they are determined by social conditions, themselves the product of political and economic systems.   

Second, Covid has humbled us and warned us.

It has given us a taste of a natural world reasserting its authority.

In the modern era we have believed that we have the ability to control things; that whatever the crisis, ‘someone somewhere’ could solve it.

We could decide not to go to war, or to feed hungry people or to house the homeless.

But we have tasted living in a world in which no-one, no-where could make a decision to end the crisis.

Until we had the vaccine, the virus stopped us in our tracks – the economy stopped, elections were postponed, schools were closed, and our flagship public service teetered on the edge of being overwhelmed.

We do have the vaccine and, with it, the hope that we will eventually be able to live with Covid.

We now need to apply that experience of loss of control to the Climate Emergency.

If we pass the tipping point, there will be no hope for recovery. 

Weather chaos and disorder will feed on each other with rapidly worsening social, economic, and political consequences.  

This threat points to what Civil Rights activist and Harvard scholar Marshal Ganz called the ‘urgency of the now’.

And this leads to the third insight, which is the importance of cities.

Climate change will be won or lost in cities.

Cities are home to over half of the world’s people.

They consume over 70% of the world’s energy and generate three quarters of global carbon emissions.

Cities do offer amongst the most sustainable lifestyles.

Higher density living can offer lower carbon footprints than sprawling settlements, if they are done right.

The Former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, said ‘most of the things that make cities better, cleaner, healthier, and more economically productive places also reduce carbon emissions’.

It’s a simple statement containing a profound truth that cities are the places where good social policy will lessen the carbon footprints of the greatest number of people and offer the greatest opportunity to minimise the price the planet plays for our growing world population. 

So, we have two major crises, the pandemic and climate, pointing us to the need to expedite delivery of progressive social policy and better living conditions, through cities.

Let me take you through some of the ways we are doing that in our city.  

On climate, we have worked with the city to agree and collectively commit to the One City climate strategy and it’s 2030 carbon neutral and climate resilience targets.

We launched our Ecological Emergency Action Plan last month.

The plan was led by Avon Wildlife Trust and developed with 36 organisations.

It commits us to:

  • 30 per cent of our land being managed for nature;
  • A 50% reduction in the use of pesticides;
  • 100% of Bristol’s waterways being fit to support healthy wildlife;
  • And a reduction of products that undermine the health of wildlife and ecosystems.

We have invested £42m on retrofitting council-owned homes, with:

  • 6,500 homes having had gas boilers replaced
  • 800 houses and 1,000 flats have wall insulation
  • 1,000 have new insulated roofs
  • 2,500 have double glazed replacements
  • 2,000 have had loft insulation top ups

Today, 99% of publicly owned homes have double glazing, 98% have insulated cavity walls. 

We’ve also planted 70,000 new trees through One Tree Per Child, a programme commenced by my predecessor George and continued by us.

More than 9,000 were planted last year, including Bristol’s first mini forest in Southmead. A business scheme has set a target to plant 250,000 trees.

All this contributes to our One City Plan goal to double the tree canopy by 2046.

And we are working with the University of Manchester and the Met Office to understand our city’s vulnerability to overheating and how we can protect ourselves from severe heat waves. 

We’ve invested £22 million in renewable energy projects and low carbon heat networks.

Our district heating network already serves Old Market, Redcliffe and Hartcliffe – with Bedminster, Temple Quarter and St Phillips soon to join them.

We are installing a zero carbon water source heat pump in Castle Park that will heat 1,000 council homes and Castle Park View, and the Bedminster heat network will source its energy from waste water.

Bristol City Funds has invested £750,000 in Ambition Lawrence Weston’s wind turbine, that will  provide renewable energy to over 4,000 homes.

And our City Leap partnership promises to transform our relationship with energy through a £1 billion investment package to support system change from the generation and distribution to the storage and smart usage of energy.

We are building new flood defences at Avonmouth and Severnside. 

This is an incredible scheme that combines flood protection with restored natural wetland habitats.   

We are working with the Environment Agency to deliver flood defences for the city centre and the land along the River Avon.   

We are working with developers to build flood defences into new developments in flood plain areas.

And as the country starts asking Government how it will fund its zero carbon strategy, we are already working with the World Economic Forum and the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission, to connect cities with the public and private finance we need to fund our de-carbonisation.

The cost of decarbonising Bristol alone is nearly £10 billion and this is part of the 200 plus billion package needed to de-carbonise the UK’s Core Cities and London. 

On housing, we will have built some 9,000 new homes, in the past five years, by the end of this year, with 12,000 more homes with planning permissions in the pipeline, having been delayed by Covid and Brexit.  

We have 173 homes being built by BoKlok on Airport Way.

In Lockleaze, we have 185 homes in Bonnington Walk – and 268 homes in Romney House, being built by our council owned company, Goram Homes.    

And many more.

We have at least 1,400 new homes on their way in Hengrove.

Not only will around 50% of these be affordable but they will set a benchmark for offsite modern construction methods and low carbon development.

And now, with Bristol Zoo relocating, we have an incredible opportunity to deliver affordable homes in Clifton.

We have set ourselves another stretching target of 2,000 homes a year by 2024 and we have set up ‘Project 1,000’, a council board whose sole aim is to deliver 1,000 affordable homes a year by 2024. 

On top of that:

  • We’ve launched an estate renewal programme;
  • We’re overhauling HomeChoice;
  • We’ve extended the moratorium on evictions for council tenants;
  • We’ve joined the advisory board of The Kerslake Commission, on ending rough sleeping;
  • And we’ll become a Living Rent City.

On transport, our flagship policy remains the mass transit system including the underground.

All routes have been identified linking the north, east, south, and airport to the city centre.

It will integrate buses and trains and include new stations, to form a transformative, low carbon transport system.

We laid the foundations with our Bus Deal with First Bus.

This gives priority to bus travel to support growth in passenger numbers.

This is a key step in building the business case that will secure the over £4billion investment needed for the mass transit system.

We’ve introduced bus prioritisation including bus gates on Bristol Bridge and Baldwin Street. This has increased reliability and taken five minutes off bus journeys through the centre.

We delivered new City Centre bike lanes, pedestrianised the Old City, King Street, Cotham Hill, Princess Victoria Street, and four pilots are now running for School Streets, closing roads outside schools at drop off and pick up time.

We are about to launch a consultation on the introduction of bus prioritisation for the Wells Road, to the city centre, over the Downs and the whole length of the A4018. 

We will ask you to comment on proposals to remove parking that causes congestion on key routes and the closure of Park Street to private cars.

This has the potential to re-invent public realm up to the Triangle and remove rat runs from the Downs.

We submitted the full business case for the Clean Air Zone which will come into force next year.

We are negotiating with Government a package of support including:

  • £2 million for clean buses;
  • £720,000 for a new cycle scheme through Old Market;
  • Free electric bike loans and cycle training;
  • Free bus tickets;
  • Discounts on car club membership;
  • Support to buy electric cars;
  • And financial support for business and residents to upgrade polluting vehicles.

We estimate the CAZ will reduce traffic travelling into the City Centre by approximately 2,000 vehicles per day, while delivering protections for lower paid workers, hospital patients and visitors, and blue badge holders.  

Over half a century ago, Bristol lost its trams and, twenty years ago, lost out on an opportunity for ‘supertrams’.

This was down to poor leadership, impenetrable council structures, and regional squabbles.

We have the opportunity today to get beyond these historical failures and deliver something transformative.

We need government funding and we must ensure the West Of England Combined Authority unlocks the investment Bristol and the city region needs.

We need substance, not soundbites.    

On infrastructure, we are fixing the city’s aging infrastructure, the Chocolate Path, key bridges around the city, the sea walls and our road network.

These have been deteriorating for decades with no clear plan for their maintenance.

We now have a plan and a capital strategy in place.

We’ve also taken on the new infrastructure challenges such as the arena where we showed our ability to make the right decision rather than the politically convenient decision.

The  YTL Bristol Area is on track to open in early 2024 and the Massive Attack gig showed us people can and will travel from all parts of the city and beyond. 

And repurposing the aircraft hangers rather than building a city centre arena from scratch was the right thing for the environment.  

Using the footprint and fabric of the existing buildings saves 21,400 cubic metres of concrete, the excavation and removal of 28,000 cubic metres of soil, and the manufacturing and transportation of 4,000 tonnes of steel.

The environmental impact of the Temple Island Arena, in development and production in steel alone, would be the equivalent of 13,000 flights from Heathrow to New York.

Contrast this with YTL’s building of one of the most environmentally sustainable arenas in the world, with solar panels, reused rainwater, and a sustainable transport plan. And of course, all at no cost to the taxpayer.

On social care, we’ve been tackling the crisis that is local government finance. 

The real costs of Covid and over a decade of austerity mean that the city again faces the challenge of an under-funded council budget. 

We are working through the numbers but, as of today, we have a potential shortfall of £42million, that may lead to more difficult decisions for the city.

Other cities have similar challenges.

Projected shortfalls in other Core Cities range from £15 million to £65 million.

Covid has accelerated the already increasing demand for adult social care at the same time as the cost of care services has increased.

We’ve had a 21% increase in mental health demand at a cost of £4 million a year.

There’s been a £45 per person per week increase in unit costs for Learning Disability services resulting in costs increasing by more than £3 million per year.

And we are now finding care providers unable to recruit workers to fill their positions, contributing to 115 ‘handbacks’ from domiciliary care providers, driven by an increase in the availability of higher-paid employment in other sectors; reduced access to EU nationals due to Brexit; and an increased demand for care staff in other organisations, including the NHS.

Boiler plate

As we have accelerated delivery for Bristol, taking on opportunities and challenges, we have experienced increasing opposition, resisting change and highlighting the downside of every intervention.

The truth is no intervention comes without risk and cost.

But, as Shirley Williams said ‘there are hazards in anything one does, but greater hazards in doing nothing’.

Bristol is a city of 42 square miles.  We aren’t getting any more land. 

We have a residential population of around 460,000 people which is expected to grow to 550,000 by 2050.

The population grows to over a million people when the workforce travels in.

We have more than 15,000 people on our housing waiting list, with over 1,100 families in temporary accommodation.

1 in 5 of our children live in low-income households.

In 2015, the Runnymede Trust ranked Bristol as the 7th worst area of England for racial inequality and went on to charge that ‘ethnic minorities in Bristol experience greater disadvantage than in England and Wales, in education and employment.’

While almost 100% of Clifton teenagers progress to university, it’s just 1 in 12 in Hartcliffe.

Almost 10% of our households experience fuel poverty and 4% experience moderate to severe food insecurity.

There is a gap in healthy years life expectancy of over 16 years between the richest and poorest areas in Bristol.

We need the city and public leaders to agree and hold themselves accountable to the depth and complexity of these challenges.

There is not a different kind of reality.

As the University of Virginia’s Professor Gerry Warburg said: ‘you’re entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts.’

Bristol has been a city with a high profile of activism over the years.

And activism is welcome and valuable but in and of itself, is not enough.

In September’s Full Council, three people made statements, in turn. 

The first argued against housebuilding on Western Slopes and urban sprawl. 

The second, concerned about private rents, told me to sort out the housing crisis – that would require me to build homes.  

The third made a statement against children living in tall buildings and there is of course a wider campaign against height.

I suggested that they all need to talk to each other.   

All three made an argument, that to be solved, required compromise from the other two. 

It’s fine to point at me but what’s needed is a city conversation.

To solve the complexity of the problems in our city, we all need to work together and be on receive as well as transmit. 

I’ve learnt those lessons.

In my 20s, I was all transmit.

In 2000, I was protesting outside the World Bank in Washington, DC, with a crowd, shouting at low paid security workers, for defending neo-liberalism. 

That’s activism at its worst, more focussed on the emotional gratification and of the activists’ brand than the outcomes of the cause they are fighting for.   

The historian and writer Paul Gilroy said: ‘It is imperative to remain less interested in who or what we imagine ourselves to be than in what we can do for one another.’

At its best, activism creates the conditions for and builds the unlikely alliances that make more radical politics possible.   

In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson succeeded in bringing the Civil Rights Act into law. 

Martin Luther King Jr then approached Johnson, congratulated him, and said ‘now we need a Voting Rights Act. 

Johnson told King he couldn’t do it as he had cashed in all of his political capital to deliver the Civil Rights Act.  

So King organised the Selma March.

Many of you will know the marchers were brutally attacked by police.

But the world was watching and this changed the political climate.

It was a new climate that only made the Voting Rights Act possible but necessary.

On the 6th of August 1965, the Bill was signed by President Johnson, banning States from passing laws prohibiting voting laws based on race, and bringing into force what is often described as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted and changing America forever.   

People often say we haven’t got time to waste but it is also true that we haven’t got time to get it wrong.

We need a new settlement in how we understand each other and work together.

National and international leadership

We rarely talk about our global and national leadership but we should be proud.

What happens in Bristol isn’t just down to the decisions we make. 

We are shaped by national and international events.

To serve Bristol fully, we must be able to shape the context within which Bristol has to live, and exert influence over those external forces that impact on life in our city.

Trying to tackle city challenges without tackling this context is like straining gnats while swallowing camels.

I sit on the Mayor’s Migration Council and the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow.

I sit on the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission, where we have identified over £200 billion of de-carbonisation opportunities across the Core Cities and London.

This year, I was asked to become of chair the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board. 

I also sit on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission, Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future, on the advisory panel of the Work Foundation.

Bristol plays a leading role in the Global Parliament of Mayors, Eurocities, UK100, Core Cities and helped to set up the Western Gateway.

We have set up our own International Strategy Board to mobilise city partners to represent us on the global stage.

As part of that, today we can announce the appointment of three new international ambassadors for the city.

They are:

  • Marti Burgess, Partner at Bevan Brittan and Chair of Black South West Network;
  • Clare Reddington, the CEO of Watershed; 
  • Fuad Mahamed, CEO and Founder of Ashley Community Housing.

Welcome to the role and I know you will all promote Bristol brilliantly, joining our existing alumni of city ambassadors. 

History Commission

I want to finish tonight by thanking the members of the History Commission. They have shown emotionally intelligent leadership as we navigate a challenging time in Bristol’s history, following the hauling down of Colston’s statue.

They helped put together an excellent display in the M-Shed and received 14,000 responses to their survey on the future of the statue.

Their work will help us to understand our own past, bringing a fuller understanding of how our city has become what it is today.  

Our past has been shaped by poverty and slum clearances, investment, slavery, wars, strikes, protest, Chartists and Suffragettes, the harbour and the docks, manufacturing, innovation and technology, migration, faith, and much more.

Within that, we have our difficulties and our demons.

We have our highs and our heroes, including those who we are yet to learn about. 

At the same time, building on the History Commission’s ‘Bridging Histories’ programme, our culture team is working towards a family history project, that will support people understand their own personal history, and why their families came here or why their families were displaced to the parts of Bristol that they were born in.

Looking at this opportunity, I have started to look at my own family tree and, during a recent trip in which I saw my Jamaican family, I discovered an important part of my own history.  

Samuel Richardson was hung by the British.  

In 1865, not far from Kingston, Jamaica, in Morant Bay, a popular Baptist preacher Paul Bogle led the rescue of a black man who had been arrested for trespassing on an abandoned former sugar plantation.

Hundreds of people joined him as he led a call for reform.

Troops were sent and spent weeks indiscriminately killing black Jamaicans.

Executions followed and among those was Samuel Richardson, my great, great, great grandfather.

I have thought about him since finding out, how he felt when he stood on the gallows and wondered about descendants to come.

Discovering him has made me, more me.

I encourage you all to join in this project and uncover your own family history.

Those histories are our history and will make us more Bristol.


I’ve spoken tonight about the conflicting pressures alongside the fundamental challenges both now and in the future and our need to deliver.

To deliver at the scale and pace of change we need, we must be honest about the nature of those challenges, make space for alliances, and bring the many with us – keeping the city together. 

We must be solutions focussed.  

As the novelist, Raymond Williams said: ‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.’

Let’s choose hope.

Thank you.


This is a transcript of Marvin Rees’ address at the event How Do We Build an Open, Tolerant and Inclusive City? which took place at the Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building on 20 October 2021. Other speakers included Alice Towle (Bristol Youth Mayor), Caleb Parkin (Bristol City Poet) and the panellists Ian Goldin (author most recently of Rescue: From Global Crisis to a Better World), Sado Jirde (director, Black South West Network), writer, broadcaster and musician Musa Okwonga, and Liz Zeidler (Centre for Thriving Places). The panel was introduced by Andrew Kelly, Bristol Ideas.

ALl Photos on this page are by Wayne Godwin Reid.

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