Bristol’s new broom

Britain’s first directly elected black mayor, Marvin Rees, swept to power in Bristol in May. He tells Tom Wall how growing up on a council estate shaped his views and how he will transform his home town

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Marvin Rees

A gaggle of fresh-faced kids from Lawrence Weston, a post-war council estate on the outskirts of Bristol, are trying to guess what car the city’s recently elected Labour mayor Marvin Rees will be turning up in. An Aston Martin? A Porsche? A Google driverless car?

When the mayor arrives in a Ford Fiesta, you’d think they’d be disappointed. But they leap up from their battered BMXs and mob him like an Olympic champion. With the charm that helped him sweep to victory in spring, Mr Rees poses for photos (inset right) and chats about growing up on the estate.

“Did you ever shimmy up between the garages at the back? I used to love doing that.”

“I lived just there with my mum,” he says, pointing to a modest ground-floor council flat. “Did you ever shimmy up between the garages at the back? I used to love doing that.”

Before they part he gives them his mobile number so they can arrange for him to speak at their school. It’s clear that he has the single attribute that many modern career politicians crave: to talk and act like a human.

“I come here fairly frequently, just to visit where I came from, where I spent those early years. It’s special. It’s nice to get a reception like that.”

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His mum arrived in Lawrence Weston after a spell in a refuge in Devon. The family later moved to another part of Bristol but the estate left a big impression on Mr Rees.

“My mum was single. She was white and had a brown baby. We’d just come from a refuge.”

“I look back on it with a nostalgia but it was tough. My mum was single. She was white and had a brown baby. We’d just come from a refuge.”

The estate sits below steep wooded hills. There is plenty of space for kids to play in but it’s a long way from the amenities of the city centre.

“We didn’t have a car so to get into town was a bus ride. So while I have memories of adventure - we’d go climbing in the fields round the back - it was also quite a feeling of being locked out and a bit lost.”

Nor was it easy being one of only a few black children on the estate: “I was the only brown-skinned kid around. There were a couple of other families. But in my school I was the only kid who wasn’t white.”

He was called names but accepted it as a part of life. “I knew I was different. But as a six-year-old you don’t understand that stuff fully. You are in the middle of this experience of being different and feeling vulnerable.”