Totterdown students get to quiz Marvin Rees on everything from the environment to the arena

March 29 2019
Hillcrest pupils grill the mayor

BRISTOL mayor Marvin Rees has faced difficult question from political opponents in the council chamber, in election meetings and on the streets, but rarely has he faced such a searching set of questions as he did at Hillcrest school.

Updates on the arena site, a Bristol underground, climate change and more when pupils quiz the mayor

BRISTOL mayor Marvin Rees has faced difficult question from political opponents in the council chamber, in election meetings and on the streets, but rarely has he faced such a searching set of questions as he did at Hillcrest school.

Year 6 pupils at the Totterdown primary were given the chance to grill the Labour mayor about any subject they wanted.

Their probing questions revealed updates on several of Bristol’s most pressing issues.

“Do you know what’s going to be at the arena site?” was the first question, referring to the Bath Road plot earmarked for an arena but now likely to be developed by Legal and General as homes and offices.

Mr Rees revealed that TV companies are among the occupiers looking at the site – perhaps a hint that Channel 4 will put its new Bristol base there.

Lots of exciting changes are coming to the area, including a revamp of Temple Meads station and a new university campus on the old sorting office next door, the mayor said.

He revealed that he had been hoping he could press the button for an explosion to demolish the sorting office – but the children guessed, correctly, that this would have damaged the station.

Instead the giant concrete building  is being “eaten” bit by bit, over three months, by a machine that looks like a dinosaur, Mr Rees said.   

Do you have to take difficult decisions, he was asked?

“Sometimes none of the options are good,” the mayor said, “and you think which is the least worst? That’s the challenge of leadership.

He cited the example of the airport. If it is allowed to expand it could provide lots of jobs, which are needed, because a quarter of Bristol children live in poverty, he said.

But we also want a sustainable city, he said, in a reference to criticism that air travel can’t keep growing if Bristol is to meet its carbon-neutral target in 2030. But “if we we don’t support the expansion of the airport we are giving up on providing those jobs for people,” he said.

What’s it like being mayor? Challenging, he answered but also rewarding, like when he saw families moving into new council homes, and children being able to choose a bedroom when they haven’t had their own room before.

What were your favourite subjects at school? Maths and PE, said Mr Rees – when a PE lesson was delayed once he was so upset that he cried, he revealed.

His teachers said he was very able but he didn’t work hard. “I wasn’t always very well behaved. I would say to myself, what if I did try hard, and they find out I’m not as clever as they think I am?”

What are you doing to tackle crime and drugs, one boy asked – adding that he had found a syringe in a park on the way to school

The mayor said the council works closely with the police and also works hard to improve mental health, including at schools, as a way of making people less vulnerable to drugs.

What can we do about the environment and climate change, one Year 6 pupils asked.

Mr Rees said he wants to see every bus in the city run on zero-emission biogas. He’s also lobbying government for money to make all taxis electric.

“We really need to support people to switch from using cars to public transport,” he said.

Asked also what he was doing to stop plastics damaging the environment, he said City Hall has stopped using plastic cups and straws.

The children  sounded excited when the mayor said there is a real possibility of Bristol getting an underground system like London.

Mr Rees has already announced a second study into whether a Bristol tube network would work and pay for itself. 

He revealed that he has just been in France talking to possible partners in an underground – a significant statement, since it’s a French driverless train made by Siemens that seems the most likely design to be used in Bristol. The mayor has spoken before about how small, rubber-tyred trains running automatically could be much cheaper to run than conventional tube trains on rails.

What’s the biggest issue for the mayor? Housing, said Mr Rees. There are 11,000 people waiting for council homes and they deserve good quality housing, he said – recalling how when he was growing up in a small council home, his sister had to share a bedroom with his mother.

What does it feel like to take part in an election? It’s hard work, said the mayor – he is busy from 6.30am in the morning until 10pm at night, with lots of meetings, “But it’s great because you get to the chance to actually talk to people,” he said.

How do you think Brexit will affect Bristol? There are a lot of risks, said the mayor, especially to firms that trade without other countries, such as Airbus, but it should also affect the NHS because there could be fewer care workers coming to the city.

Brexit has also affected the way we talk about each other, with a small spike in hate crimes after the Brexit referendum in 2016, he said.

Later, in an assembly of the whole school, Mr Rees presented certificates of achievements to pupils and took more questions – this time causing some amusement.

“Why do you like bossing the city around as mayor?” asked one pupil? “I don’t think bossing around is my style!” said Mr Rees.

“What does your house look like,” asked another. “It’s three times as big as this hall and there’s a Lamborghini outside,” said Mr Rees – stirring sounds of wonder from the younger children who thought this might be true, until the mayor rapidly assured them he was joking.