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THERE'S been great fanfare in recent weeks in anticipation of the North East's cityregional devolution deals.

The Treasury yesterday agreed to devolve substantial funding to new authorities, including a Mayor with a North East Investment Fund at their disposal. When the North East voted 'no' to devolution in 2004, it didn't abolish the deep seated regional problems it was supposed to solve. The recent shock announcement of the SSI closure on Teesside reminds us of the North East's continuing vulnerability.

Whilst the South East bathes in the rosy glow of a thriving London financial sector, swathes of the rest of the country have yet to find a convincing way to make a living in an increasingly competitive world. And it's not just the economy where things need to be done differently.

In the coming years, challenges to society and the environment are going to come thick and fast. Without addressing global warming, urban poverty, our ageing population and the end of oil, the North East in 2065 is not going to be a pretty place to live.

We could even see whole villages and towns become ghost settlements, a process already well underway even in parts of prosperous Germany.

I've been in Norway this week meeting other scientists to find solutions for climate change problems. Norwegian researchers are developing practical solutions, often using surprisingly simple technologies in innovative ways.

One project researched using wood panelling to help warm homes. Wood absorbs moisture at night, releasing heat and warming the house; during the day, sunlight dries the wood and recharges the energy. The savings are not modest: done the right way it can save enough energy to fill 100 baths per year.

Other projects are capturing mineral carbon from the atmosphere for storage in soil, and developing antibiotic additives that lower the temperature at which cement can be made.

They're such beautiful, elegant and natural solutions that gives me a real hope of solving these grand challenges.

But the meeting's surprising aspect was that many solutions rely on local initiative.

You need homeowners willing to embrace wood chic, farmers willing to plough deactivated carbon into their soils, or builders willing to add antibiotics to their cement.

New kinds of power stations may help solve global warming and energy shortages, but it's clear we must all do our bit. But to change their lives, people must see the benefits - not just economic, but social, cultural, and aesthetic.

Storing deactivated mineral carbon in Kielder Forest could provide a huge opportunity to deacidify soils and upgrade the pine landscape to a more authentic oak landscape.

There's huge opportunity in our timber stocks to manufacture these heat storage panels and create local jobs to boot.

But being proactive consumers, willing to buy wooden panelling or houses built from biocement, is not enough. We've got to be proactive imagining a future North East where we all feel comfortable.

And in an increasingly individualist society, that demands strong and inspiring leadership, a new kind of politics. We also need a new kind of politician, who both imagines this alluring future and persuades us to collaborate in realising it.

Does the devolution deal give us this new approach? To me it seems very bureaucratic, but it's undeniably an opportunity that we can use to start imagining these more sustainable futures.

So let's give the deal two cheers, put our cynicism to one side, and encourage the new Mayor to be the leader we need to give us towns, villages and cities in the North East where we can all be proud to live.

North East-born Dr Paul Ben-|neworth is a senior researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Without addressing global warming, urban poverty, our ageing population and the end of oil, the North East in 2065 is not going to be a pretty place to live
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 24, 2015
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