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Regions in transition: Lessons from Lusatia and beyond

September 23rd 2019

In this blog post, Helen Cunningham describes her recent visit to Germany where she met people from across the continent working to manage the transition from coal

Last week I travelled to Lusatia, Germany for a conference exploring how coalfield regions can respond to “coal exit”. The Lusatia region sits in the far east of Germany, on the border with the Czech Republic and Poland, and shares a coal seam with the latter that continues to be worked, although there are plans to phase out the mining of the lignite (brown) coal there. The conference brought together local and international perspectives to stimulate discussion on how coal regions respond to and manage the economic, social and energy transition from coal exit.

Sharing lessons across coalfields

I presented an overview of some of the initiatives that have been seen in the south Wales valleys. In putting it together, I was reminded of of just how many initiatives the area has experienced, from the derelict land unit clearances of the Welsh office, the Welsh Development Agency’s urban renewal schemes, substantial dedicated EU funding streams, to the multiple valleys initiatives from the Welsh Government up to the present day.

The conference presented interesting lessons, with speakers from the Ruhr, Czech Republic, Scotland, Austria and an EU-wide trade union. Lessons from the Ruhr showcased the transition from 600,000 people employed in mining in the 1960’s to 1,000 today. It has received visits from former Chinese president Hu Jintao to understand the structural change that has taken place – what was once the largest hard coal mine in Europe is now a home for the arts, culture and the creative industries. Mureck, Austria has performed something of an energy revolution. moving to bio-diesel, district heating and green energy and generating thousands of jobs in the green energy sector in the process. The trade union presentation raised questions about the meaning of a European just transition for the whole supply chain, citing the example of workers manufacturing wind turbines in Leon, Spain, where production was relocated outside the EU at a cost of 362 jobs. The Heartlands project in Scotland showcased largest decontamination initiative in Scotland that is now in the process of creating a new community and integrating it with the pre-existing community.

Common challenges

In spite of the diversity of speakers, there were common themes that emerged in discussions. One of the biggest challenges that one speaker identified with was apathy, and participants agreed that the importance of community involvement, engagement and partnership cannot be underestimated. Many contributors raised a familiar question about if those in power are bold and ambitious enough when it comes to initiatives and that the most successful initiatives are those that bring in the broadest range of perspectives and partners as possible.

The conference was a useful opportunity to hear from regions facing common challenges yet responding in very different ways. Realistically, change on the scale discussed, takes a generation or more. It was also a reminder of how the long view is so important and necessary, from learning what didn’t work, (and making sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated), to seeing how change that may never have been thought possible can actually be achieved.


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