Our interview with Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees
Representing the Bristol Older People’s Forum (BOPF) and the Transport Action group, I met with Mayor Rees on 11 October to discuss a range of transport issues recently raised by our members.
In Bristol the private sector runs the buses, is this best we can do?
Mayor Rees (MR). Well it’s what we can do with the powers we have. We have to work in the context we have. In that context we are trying to get a ‘Bus Deal’ with the bus companies which will increase frequency. But until we get a change in national legislation a municipal bus company is beyond us.
Yes I understand that but what about bus franchising as an option?
- So in theory that’s good but as someone pointed out there is no substitute for money. The reason London buses work is because they receive a massive subsidy. The challenge of franchising is that it comes with a great deal of financial risk for the local authority. And if it didn’t work out as we wish we could end up incurring lots of costs that impact on other services. So we have to balance out those risks but there’s no substitute for subsidising the routes and having the money to put into it, which we don’t have.
Franchising would give you control over routes and bus fare prices and timetables.
- And financial liability…
Yes, but can I ask you if franchising is at least on the table for the future?
- The aspiration is to have a ‘world class’ transport system. We are working at the moment on an underground, with the Metro Bus linking in along with bus routes and pedestrian. That is the aspiration. How we get there is having to work within the confines we got. Those confines are the legislative boundaries you work within and the financial envelope. Franchising is financially a high risk move that does not, in of its self, guarantee and improved bus services without the money to back it up, which we don’t currently have. That is why it’s not the route we’re going down and we are going down the ‘Bus Deal’ route.
So just to press you a bit further on this, there are campaign groups in Bristol that want to focus on franchising so is that something you would look at again if you’re elected next year.
- Yes, if they come with some pounds and pence next to it. And tell me how financially it will work and how we can minimise the financial risk to Bristol City Council and if it stacks up then of course we would be open to that conversation. But money is an object and other services do depend on our money and we have to be careful with the council’s money
So if money was no object and Government legislation changes would you like to see buses brought back ‘in house’?
- Yes, I’d love to have a Bristol owned Bus Company because we face a situation whereby one of the key policy interventions in Bristol is not directly in our control. I will actually say that the management we have locally, and they have had support from the First Bus national office, has been quite cooperative and supportive of the city. So we’ve got a good collection of relationships but
‘I think the best would be for Bristol to own its own bus company and to wield public transport as a major policy intervention. Breaking down social isolation, transport poverty, access to employment, education and so forth.’
We have traditionally spent too much time considering the problems and not enough time looking at solutions. If we could have ownership of our transport system I would take it, but that is not an option right now. So I can either spend my time wishing we could or work on solutions. So I say this is where we are now, Mrs Biggins needs to travel from A to B for the nest year, how can I make that easier for her right here right now. At a mayoral level it is about delivery, being practical and pragmatic. MPs get the chance to talk about abstract principles. It doesn’t mean that at the mayoral level you don’t have principles. I can‘t turn up in 2021 and say look at all these headlines of me slagging of the Tories to someone who doesn’t’ have a job or a house. It has to be about delivery. It is about how I spend my time.
You still surely need to have a Socialist vision.
- I do. I want to own a bus company.
- So, in the meantime without franchising or council ownership, can we deliver something as well as say Nottingham’s integrated transport system?
- Well I hope so. As a politician I don’t like when other politicians talk like boxers and say they’re going to wipe the floor with their opponents, what I can say is, is that we are committed to deliver the best we can in the city. So we think the ‘Bus Deal’ is the route that gets us to the best available system that we can. Making sure that buses aren’t pumping our diesel, increased frequency, and increased routes. Actually we’re lining it up with the ‘big tidy’ and the ‘clean streets’. Lining that up with public transport is about feeling safe getting to the buses and public spaces. We are dealing with the legacy of forty to fifty years of Bristol’s failure to tackle transport in a meaningful way. Beneath all that we are writing a business case, after doing the feasibility study, for a mass transport system which is the underground/aboveground.
That’s a big project. How much will it cost?
- £4.5 billion
Will it happen?
- Yes. It will take many cars off the road.
In making the argument for the underground I understand the plan includes a bigger airport?
- Yes. Airports are a strong part of the business case.
How long will it take?
Around a decade. But the first routes will come on line earlier. Looping it through the south… you pull South Bristol into the economy. This will all be done underground so the surface should not be disturbed.
THE WEST OF ENGLAND COMMBINED AUTHORITY (WECA).
Who runs transport in Bristol? It seems like BCC is doing one set of things and WECA another. Both have plans, it’s confusing.
Let me say a few things about our Relationship with the WECA (regional) Mayor Tim Bowles. First of all it is important to recognise that we have a collection of decent relationships as human beings. With Tim and our neighbouring authorities.
Is that the true answer or the politicians answer?! There is a feeling, reflected by discussions within our Transport Action Group, that WECA can be a body of non-decision making in some ways… they tend to sit on things.
- Even if there are those views, we have decent human relationships, I want those decent relationships so we can disagree and debate well. What I would say is that the introduction of WECA was a national government decision that was a bit back to front. I think what they said was here is a model that worked in Manchester; we want you to take it on. If you do we will give you money and power, if you don’t, we won’t. If you don’t take on the combined authority model you will be at the back of the queue. The problem with that is that introducing a new structure doesn’t necessarily bring the behaviours you want. The behaviours you want are cross border working, long-term thinking and big aspirations to solve our challenges. Having said that and having got this, we really need to make sure it does deliver. Obviously there is a role for the combined authority, which is us by the way! It’s not a separate organization.
So as Bristol Mayor do you have direct influence over WECA decision making process?
Of course, there is no combined authorities without all the authorities; ultimately it is us, the local authorities combined. What it says is; can you come together, because transport is a cross border issue, can you use this forum that Tim chairs to solve those cross border issues. Ultimate responsibility lies with Bristol but there are powers and Forums that can work together.
Through our Transport Action Group we’ve raised some concerns about Real Time Information (RTI) at bus stops and recently sent a question to Mayor Bowles about the rumoured £2 million pounds WECA has available to improve RTI. The reply wasn’t particularly clear so do you know if the money has been invested and if not why not?
- There has been some criticism, we (BCC) were the lead commissioner on RTI and we have had feedback where it hasn’t worked as well as it could. I have been on bus stops where it is fantastic, but some people have fed back that it is not working. We are trying to work out if that is isolated glitches or a systematic change. But this is something we do as a region but Bristol takes the lead part on that. Have WECA spent the money? Shall I find out right now? I’ll ask the team (an officer checks this out). Pause…
Officer: I’ve checked this. The allocation was £500k to WECA for RTI across region. Some money has been withheld subject to contractor performance (unable to expand due to a possible legal issue).
RTI is important and BOPF members would like to see it work better and be expanded.
It should work, and we have an aspiration to make it work and it’s a part of our Bus Deal.
In terms of your relationship with First Bus, there’s a rumour circulating about a management buyout supported by BCC?
- MR. Can’t say too much on this, at this stage. I can say that we are waiting to see what happens with the sale of First Bus. We hope what comes out of it is good for Bristol.
Is it best for Bristol to have shareholders come first before passengers?
Should we spend our time focussing on another model that we don’t have or on making the current model work? We have aspirations once things are in place.
So do you have good relationship with First Bus?
- Yes, although they are a private company, we work with what we have…
BOPF MEMBER QUESTIONS
I have a question from one of our members. People are parking on the main roads as Southmead hospital is too expensive for visitors and employees. DO you have any control over that?
- This is an example of a discriminatory health service to not have proper public transport provision.
This issue is also about too many cars, and parking in hospitals being limited.
- The plans for the mass transport system will cover some of these issues. We are dealing with the legacy of 50 years of no transport planning. There is a saying I use, ’the best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago. The second best time is today.’ We are starting from where we are. Let’s pull the trigger getting a meaningful mass transport system that will stop at Southmead hospital and be efficient and on time.
Another member Bridget Morris has asked about an extension to the 11/11A bus to Parkway station that hasn’t happened?
- I am not sure as it is not in Bristol. I don’t know. I can ask someone to look into it.
A question that came from Judith Gribble is about bus stops being continually relocated. For example the Number 75 moved from Primark to the city centre, which is now too far for her walk. What mechanism is there for people to report this type of concern? Bill Harvey also asked who is responsible for the placement of bus stops?
- First Bus would make decision in part and we would expect a conversation about these movements. If people have a particular concern they can come to the Mayor’s office, speak to the transport lead and speak to the councillors.
We would want a more formal mechanism for raising these issues but I’ll come on to that a bit later.
There have been a number of Issues around walkability. There is a concern around shared spaces, tension between cars, pedestrians and cyclists and in particular concerns about pedestrians and cars. Is there a commitment to do away with shared spaces where possible?
- We would like to have protected spaces as much as possible so people can feel safe. My mum is seventy two so it is a concern for me. I was on the Easton railway path the other day, guy came towards be on a bike he must have been doing thirty five mph. I have walked in the middle of the path to stop people! The way we build Bristol and managed spaces is important, but we also need a bit of human graciousness and human care. There is only so far you can go with law. We are in a city where everyone ‘gives it’ to everyone. Everyone needs to… I am not being all misty eyed about this but we need more of a culture of human decency.
- Yes. They are all people. When I raised an issue about the speed of cyclists on the railway path I got a lot of abuse. My son was knocked over; I don’t want my mum to be knocked over. You want to feel that your public spaces are safe. The other day someone knocked into me on the centre. It is your responsibility to slow down and to take action if someone can’t move out the way.
Could there be some practical work done about the lines between the pedestrian and the cycle paths, like on the centre?
If you make it clearer, people split. But they also become territorial. When a pedestrian is walking across the cycling path you are less likely to slow down. There are studies around shared spaces of cycles and cars, if you don’t make it clear then cars are more careful as they don’t know what is going on. It is worth looking at specific areas, and see how we manage those spaces.
Should we be looking towards a low traffic neighbourhood as part of age friendly neighbourhoods. Maybe raise awareness, particularly with commuter parking in residential areas.
I have less sympathy with commuters than residents. Part of the solution is moving away from car dependency, which comes from a mass transport system, and where we build houses. Build in the centre so people can walk around. These are solutions we are looking at with our housing planning.
Is there a lack of enforcement around cars parking on pavements?
This is a conundrum, some of the roads are narrow and they can block emergency vehicles. This is the challenge of an old city with an old street layout. Some of this is about fewer cars on the road. There are no easy answers. I need to get on top of this with my transport team, to see what other cities have done.
You could get traffic wardens to work on enforcement
- I will bear it in mind. I would on a wider level, invite the BOPF and your Transport Group to come to the transport board with their top ten issues. Some things we will be able to do, some not, some half do, some in a number of years.
Another question from a BOPF member concerns the front entrance to Temple Meads. There is an issue about it being chaotic around the taxis queuing area, especially for older and disabled people, with not much pedestrian space. Will there be improvements tied in with the regeneration of the station?
Yes. I am on the board with Network Rail, Heritage England the Department of Transport (DOT) and others. The DOT should be on site within a couple of years. The redesign includes the ramp entrance and the back entrance to the new campus. Network Rail were looking to reduce the number of taxi licenses, that has been postponed, as it may impact on Black and other Minority Ethnic Communities (there is a high number of taxi drivers from diverse communities) and small business. The project to redesign Temple Meads is fantastic! I also went recently to a talk about dementia, and we are wanting to build in some of the principle of dementia friendly into the redesign. This will make it more navigable for everyone.
A further question from a BOPF member on clean air and congestion. What is your preferred option?
That process is an interesting one. I am saying two things. We have reached compliance in the shortest possible time and I have taken care of ordinary people’s finance. For example, the options being suggested would lead to an increase in costs for University Hospitals Bristol (NHS Foundation Trust) which would mean a cut in some of their services and lead to some of their patients who need to use cars, unable to access their services. When you have responsibility you have to take account of those things. The Clean Air Zone (CAZ) is nine roads across Bristol; different roads come to compliance at different times. So Park Street will be compliant in 2021, Church Road 2019. So that doesn’t mean that we are not doing anything, just that some roads are worse than others. This is not a political exercise but a technical one. What technical interventions do you need to make to improve air clean? We have got to a single option that includes a combination of the options put to the public that brings us to compliance in 2025 if not sooner. This includes a small area diesel ban but not a ban on private cars (this has a disproportionate impact on poor people). If you live in a household where losing £30 a month impacts your ability to pay your rent and eat that does not wash with you. The fact that we are being careful in the way we make plans is a good thing and bears no relationship to the time you pull the trigger for implementation. The time we pull the trigger is still April 2021. The fact we are looking at the impact on the poorest people is a good thing. We can look at the consequences now, or after implementation, but this impacts on real people’s lives.
What kind of political leadership do you want? Do you want the kind of leadership that is prepared to take a hit in the headlines to do the right thing? Or do you want someone who does everything to get the headlines but disadvantages vulnerable people. If we take our time we can consider the negative consequences.
HOW BOPF CAN INFLUENCE TRANSPORT DECISIONS?
Picking upon the formal ways to properly voice older people’s concerns, BOPF and the Transport Action Group would like a more concrete position to influence and help deliver solutions. How can we do this?
- Here are a couple of things we can do. One of the things we want to do for the thematic boards for the One City Plan (the thirty year strategy for transforming the city) is have a ‘home’ for discussions so that they land somewhere real. These thematic boards are responsible for putting the timings on the city plan.
‘ If we build the relationship between you and the transport city board then your ideas will have a home. If you come up with your top 10 things for transport.’
So you want our top 10 issues, how can we kick start that?
- Talk to Kye (Cllr Kye Dudd the Cabinet lead on transport) and get on the board.
Can you help with that?
- I’ll phone him now. (Agreed to meet with Kye in the next couple of weeks to discuss, with a clear commitment to BOPF having a place of the Connectivity Board of the One City Plan).
With the One City Plan we have made a space for people to drive into. If you want to input into the future of the city look at the plan and pull it apart… comment on it. The Transport Action Group can also be a feeder group to the board. So ask your members to look at the Plan, go over it and make comments. Comment on what is in there, or say what you would like to be included and when. Or do a session and invite the city board to come to the meeting. We refresh it every year…
Thanks. I will take this back to the both BOPF and the Transport Action group to discuss and then take this forward.
I can see you come across as a pragmatic politician but do you need to spend all your time with corporate people!
We are not doing or saying that but at the same time if there is a lot of money being spent and we can get it spent in a different way it is worth doing that. If you go and spend your time with corporate people it doesn’t mean you become a corporate person, it also means they are subject to your influence too. If I am on a rainy hill on the Brecon Beacons, nine people telling me we need a shelter is great but one person building one is the person you want on your team.
If you don’t get re-elected next year the One City Plan might be scrapped.
To walk away from that, you have to say to city partners that you are walking away from all the work they have done.
You are coming to our November 28th meeting. We had our open forum recently with over 80 people. That might be an opportunity to reiterate your promise of how we get involved in the One City Plan and decision making in general. This really is about giving older people a voice and tackling ageism, the last bastion of prejudice.
- Yes. I will look forward to meeting up and discussing with BOPF.
Thanks very much for your time Marvin
Interview by Ian Quaife, BOPF Development & Engagement Manager