Let’s Chat: Marvin Rees OBE

Our Let’s Chat series shines a spotlight on the all-important stakeholders who form a vital part of Engine Shed. We sat down with Marvin Rees OBE, Mayor of Bristol, to find out what Bristol has gained from having a mayor and the role of our universities in supporting a city economy.

What is your current role and what is your background?

I’m the Mayor of Bristol. I was first elected to this role in May 2016 and I’m just coming up to the end of my second term. Personally, I was born in Bristol and lived here most of my life other than periods in Devon, Swansea and the US. Professionally, my background is very varied. I have worked for Tearfund, the development agency; the BBC; and the NHS, prior to this role.

What have Bristol businesses gained from having a mayor?

Marvin Rees speaking at roundtable event at Engine Shed

Within the city, business has had a key point of contact in a political position that is oriented towards delivery: taking collective responsibility for getting things done. That rallying point is incredibly important. An example of this is housing. When we were asking why homes hadn’t been delivered, the feedback was we just can’t work with the council, it’s too complex. When I was elected, I appointed a political lead for housing to be a point of contact, have accountability and drive through the system. Outside of the city, the feedback is that the world wants to know who they’re working with and who can broker relationships that they need to be working with. The same was true when Channel 4 announced it was looking for a city for its new creative hub, Bristol wasn’t mentioned in the national press as a candidate. So, we convened about 50 production companies in the city, and then me, Grant Mansfield (Plimsoll Productions), Lynn Barlow (UWE) and Fiona Francombe (then Bottle Yard Studios, now Bristol Old Vic Theatre School) met Channel 4’s Chief Executive in London… and they chose Bristol. Now, it’s not guaranteed that a mayor will do that. But I certainly think that the leaning of a mayoral system is outward looking, setting direction, rallying, convening power and focus, and, ultimately, securing new investment whether it’s Channel 4, new homes, or Bristol City Leap.

What do tech & innovation businesses most need help with currently?

Cities need to be places that people can afford to live in and go around. One of the most important jobs of local government is to create the conditions in which business can get on with what business wants to do; we don’t need to tell them what to do. What we do need is affordable homes, good transport, education opportunities, a skilled and resilient workforce. I think one of the reasons Bristol is so attractive to business at the moment is that we offer a better quality of life than London. I would also suggest our global connectivity is really important; off the back of Brexit we have remained a very internationally productive city, through Eurocities and work with our universities.

Specific to the tech and innovation sector, it needs championing. It needs a collection of institutions and groups of people to put a flag up and say we’re a serious player and a serious place for people to keep investing in.

Engine Shed is a pioneer in showcasing the strengths and innovations of the region. How do you reflect on its role in Bristol?

Engine Shed is a flagship for the Bristol city region. When on trade trips, it’s been an example of a place where you’d want to come and do business. It showcases the level of ambition, expertise and opportunity that that we have in Bristol and it’s part of the driver of our city region economy.

It’s also aesthetically a great place to meet. Its mix of industrial and modern gives it a sense of its connectivity with history. It also works hard to be a space for people from all backgrounds. Its location helps with that – properly central, not really owned by any particular part of the city.

How do you see the University of Bristol’s Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus contributing to Bristol’s reputation for innovation?


“It’s very difficult to overstate the significance of the new campus. It will open up a whole new chapter of the University’s relationship with Bristol because it is coming down off the hill into a much more visible presence within the city.”


Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will be a mix of enterprise and tech, right in the middle of Bristol, attracting students, academics and businesses from all around the world and different backgrounds; an amazing opportunity.

I’ve co-chaired a piece of work with the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) called the Urban Futures Commission. One of the points that it makes is that what makes cities unique as entities in driving the national economy is a mix of three things: diversity, density and dynamism. So, you get all these businesses interacting, identifying opportunities, identifying new challenges. And that’s the spark of innovation. Our universities in Bristol have worked hard at bringing greater race and class diversity into the places where clearly there is density, and with those two, you get that addition of dynamism. It’s an opportunity for the campus to be a direct investment in the very nature of what it means to be a successful city.


“A friend’s son is studying GCSE Geography and there are six pages in the syllabus book on the Temple Quarter regeneration programme.”


What is the future role that universities need to have in a city economy?

We’ve always seen the potential of universities to bring their intellectual firepower to city development. I believe universities can play a really important role in maturing the kinds of debates we have to have around urbanisation because of their connectivity across international boundaries, not just in research and collaboration, but through overseas study. There’s a lifetime connection with where you study that keeps us connected across the political fragmentation. But I’d also say universities are an economic unit: they are massive employers. We need them to grow and be strong, but they can only grow at a pace a city can cope. If you get that out of balance, university growth becomes a negative on the city upon which they depend to be successful. Universities need to manage this tension and to be sat at the table for these discussions.


“I believe universities can play a really important role in in maturing the kinds of debates we have to have around urbanization because of their connectivity across international boundaries.”


You’re personally very committed to building a fairer, more inclusive world. What’s your proudest achievement been towards this since becoming mayor?

Delivering affordable homes in balanced communities I believe is the single most significant policy tool we have at our disposal. For health, safety, freedom from poverty, life prospects, social mobility and environment. We’ve delivered nearly 13,000 of these kinds of homes since 2016: that is our proudest achievement.

What more do you think that we in Bristol could be doing to improve inclusion in the workplace?

Be intentional about it.
Partner with the voluntary sector.
Measure it.


If you’ve enjoyed this Let’s Chat, take a look at the other interviews in our Let’s Chat series

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