Interview: Is Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees taking air pollution seriously?

‘The problem with Marvin is he loves cars’, a Bristolian tells me when I mention I will be meeting the Mayor of Bristol to talk about air pollution.

Marvin Rees won the Bristol Mayoralship in 2016 on a ticket of social justice, promising to bridge the gap between the city’s haves and have nots.

Since then he’s won plaudits for driving innovative approaches around housing such as the Bristol Housing Festival, and energy with the £1bn City Leap project which aims to build a world-class renewables infrastructure.

However, delays to a clean air plan have left some in the city to question his leadership on air pollution.

It’s a reputation that irritates Rees, who maintains that the delays have been necessary because the council’s own modelling indicated a charging Clean Air Zone would have an adverse impact on some of the city’s poorest communities.

‘We’ve been absolutely committed to taking on the impact [of air quality measures] on the poorest and most vulnerable people,’ said Rees when AirQualityNews met him at his office in Bristol earlier this month.

‘Air pollution is a threat to health but poverty is also a threat to health,’ he added.

‘If you don’t listen to poor people and you just say, “This is the world as I see it and you need to see it the way I see it”, then where do the people go? Trump, Johnson, Farage – who are not environmentalists.

‘If you get the balance wrong you create conditions for a whole lot of hurt.’

Red flags

In 2017, Bristol was one of the 23 local authorities ordered by government to bring forward plans to reduce illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in line with EU air quality targets ‘in the shortest possible time’.

Other cities like Birmingham and Leeds have pressed ahead with plans to introduce Clean Air Zones but today Bristol is still to submit its outline business case to Defra, laying out what they want to do and how much money they’ll need to implement it, and it still won’t be ready until September.

They missed the initial deadline in December 2018 as well as the follow-up in February which led to Defra minister Therese Coffey publicly threatening the authority with legal action unless it was quickly delivered.

Environmental lawyers at ClientEarth are also closely watching and recently slammed ministers for letting deadlines pass unpunished, calling the situation a ‘moral failure’ from politicians at all levels.

Rees says he’s not interested in ‘silly ongoing spats’ but rather delivering the best outcome for Bristol’s most disadvantaged communities.

‘We wanted the time to look at the red flags,’ he says.

‘There was some heat that came with it but the important thing is we are doing everything we can to mitigate it.’

Rees’ argument is that under a Clean Air Zone, car or van owners in less affluent parts of Bristol would be disproportionality hit with daily charges to enter the city which could damage employment prospects.

Bristol clean air campaigner Seth Piper disputes this point. He told AirQualityNews that it shows Rees is ‘out of touch’ as he is working on the assumption that every person in the city can or should own a car.

He also says the Mayor’s ‘lack of action’ has let down every single person who lives in and visits the city.’

Research into London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) said the measures introduced will improve air quality and reduce inequality associated with it between the city’s boroughs.

Comparing London and Bristol is perhaps unfair but Rees is adamant that any measures to tackle air pollution must not come at the cost of people’s livelihoods or accelerate people over the financial cliff edge that he says many in Bristol are teetering towards.

‘National government policy has made people poorer,’ says Rees.

‘When you have more people closer to the financial cliff edge you have less room for error as a local authority.

‘We can make a decision that pushes people over the cliff edge. Where if we had taken a bit more time, they wouldn’t have fallen.

‘Once they do go over there, not only is it a social injustice, we end up spending on lots of other services or people might lose their homes. That’s really important for us.’

‘Poverty costs lives’

It’s estimated 300 people a year die in Bristol due to causes related to air pollution and further delays to Bristol’s clean air plan is ‘costing lives’, according to Cllr Eleanor Combley, leader of the Bristol Green Councillors Group.

‘Poverty costs lives,’ says Rees, who believes that many in the green movement are ‘falling into that holier than thou approach’ that is singular and doesn’t take into account the pressures the city is facing on all fronts, whether that be adult and social care, children’s services or housing.

‘That takes thinking beyond the Tweet,’ he says.

2017’s Runnymede Report painted a picture of a ‘city divided’ and the reality for many ethnic minorities in Bristol who have to overcome wider inequalities than any other major city in the UK.

Another report from the Social Mobility Commission found Bristol’s youth struggle to escape poverty despite it being one of the most attractive places in the UK for employment prospects.

Rees almost appears frustrated that air quality is taking up so much of the spotlight, and recalls a recent cabinet meeting which emptied after questions about air quality were finished with.

Next on the agenda was children’s safeguarding.

‘Everyone is there for the stuff that’s in the headlines but when you get down to the real stuff, working with the poorest people, they all disappear.’

‘We have to deal with the adult social care crisis or people will die, we have to deal with children or young people who will grow up vulnerable to early death or sickness.

‘These are the crisis we are dealing with whilst at the same time taking on existential threats to human existence in an environment where the government has made poor people poorer through welfare reform and reduced our ability to innovate and take risks.’

Earlier this month, the council finally published details of its two options to tackle air pollution — a Clean Air Zone that will charge the most polluting buses, taxis and HGVs or an eight-hour ban for diesel vehicles in a small part of the city centre.

However, both proposals put forward will not achieve compliance by 2021, despite being legally obligated to improve Bristol’s air quality ‘as soon as possible,’ with the council unable to say when they expect either plan to reach compliance.

Campaigners have accused the Mayor of kicking the can down the road on air pollution but Rees maintains his leadership on air quality has been characterised by a concern for the most vulnerable people in the city.

‘I think we’ve offered fantastic leadership on air quality because we’ve refused to detach environmental justice from social justice,’ he says.

‘Some people have glibly said to me, “There are no jobs on a dead planet”.

‘That’s true but how can you discount the importance of quality employment to people who might be three or four generations unemployed and have been left behind by the global economy.

‘That shows a real lack of respect for people’s lives.’

Big declarations

The UK100 group of city leaders meeting Environment Minister Michael Gove earlier this year.

Underfunded councils up and down the UK are grappling with how best to improve air quality, which after all has been thrust onto them after ClientEarth’s legal action against the government.

Yet many city leaders, including Rees, talk only about reaching air quality ‘compliance’, which can often imply doing the bare minimum to keep the lawyers at bay.

Shouldn’t they be going further?

Rees is part of the UK100, a group of city leaders who have consistently put pressure on government to give them the resources to better tackle air pollution, such as a nationwide scrappage scheme for owners of diesel vehicles.

However, he says they’ve been met with government ministers happy to make grand statements for the front pages about air pollution but unwilling to back local authorities with the resources necessary to make real long-term change.

‘A mentor of mine said, “Values are what you do, everything else is just words.”

‘If all you do is make statements about what you want to see but you’re not helping make it happen then that’s an issue.’

‘National governments are not equipped to cope with the world the way it is working alone. They have to work with cities. They need to devolve powers and resources to get things done.

‘If they do that, we will get it done.’