It would be a shock to most policy makers in London to learn that the two areas of the UK with the lowest unemployment are in Cumbria.
Eden and South Lakeland both have a jobless rate of 1.9% – the next lowest is Mid-Sussex on 2.0%. The national average is 4.4%.
And with Cumbria’s working-age population projected to fall by 9.5% by 2030, the labour market here is only going to get tighter.
Eden Council is ahead of the game in facing up to this issue.
Its Penrith Vision Masterplan will outline plans for up to 8,000 new homes by 2050 to house the additional workers that will be needed.
Crucially, it incorporates infrastructure improvements that must go hand-in-hand with population growth.
For Penrith, these might include new schools and childcare facilities, a leisure and recreation park, a new business park to the north of the town and a relief road linking the A66 east of Penrith with M6 junction 41.
This would relieve congestion at the Kemplay Bank roundabout and M6 junction 40.
Eden Council published a discussion paper last autumn and is expected to publish the draft Penrith Vision Masterplan shortly.
It will provide an update on progress at a ‘Celebrating Eden’ dinner tonight, a joint event with Cumbria Chamber of Commerce.
Lord Henley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is the guest speaker.
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “We know from talking to businesses that many are struggling to recruit staff.
“It’s a problem that will get worse as our population ages and more workers drop out of the labour market when they retire.
“Part of the solution is to attract people of working-age to move here. That’s something Eden has recognised by allocating land for house building.
“High-quality, affordable housing will attract dynamic, ambitious younger people, some of whom will go on to launch businesses and so boost the prosperity of the area. It’s a virtuous circle.
“We know too from work done by Professor Andrew Atherton at Lancaster University that there is scope to attract service businesses looking to relocate from London because of the high costs of doing business in the capital.
“There is real opportunity if we get this right.”
Lack of affordable housing – particularly in Eden and South Lakeland – is the is the biggest obstacle to persuading people to relocate from elsewhere.
Average house prices in Eden are 9.35 times average earnings, while in South Lakeland the multiple is 10.8 times.
The national average multiple is 7.7 while the North West average is only 6.0.
Rob said: “Housing affordability is as much of an issue in Eden and South Lakeland as it is in large parts of South East England. House prices are higher in absolute terms in the South East, but so are average earnings.”
He added: “Eden have acknowledged that you must provide infrastructure to support a larger population.
“Building thousands of homes requires the provision of more schools, leisure areas, roads and employment land.
“Plans on this scale will inevitably prove controversial.
“It’s absolutely right that the Penrith Vision Masterplan gets thorough public scrutiny before it is adopted but full marks to Eden for grappling with this issue and not burying its head in the sand.
“We look forward to hearing about the Masterplan’s progress this evening.
“We think it’s a model that other local authorities can adopt – and they will have to given the demographic challenge Cumbria faces.”
The tight labour market in Eden has prompted some employers, notably Center Parcs, to bring in workers by bus from Carlisle or West Cumbria.
It is a headache for businesses such as Cranstons. The food retailer employs 90 people at its processing site and two retail outlets in Penrith.
Managing Director Philip Cranston said: “We make pay rates as good as we can and we look after our people, but when we advertise vacancies it’s not a question of how many will apply, it’s a case of will anyone apply.
“We’ve had staff who’ve worked for us, then bought a house in Carlisle because it’s cheaper there – then they find a job in Carlisle and we lose them.
“We try to be flexible, offering the option of part-time working, but recruiting part-time staff can be harder than finding full timers.
“Recruitment is a big issue for us. It means we have to look at ways of growing the business without increasing staff numbers.”
Average earnings in Eden are below the national average – as they are in all parts of Cumbria except Copeland – and Eden is keen to generate more high-skill, high-wage employment to bring the average up.
That means attracting businesses like Atlantic Geomatics, the geospatial surveying consultancy based in Penrith with clients across the UK and abroad.
Managing Director Oliver Viney said: “It’s difficult to attract skilled, experienced people to move here to come and work for us.
“So we decided four or five years ago to recruit at trainee level and grow the business organically with local people.
“That’s enabled us to double our turnover in the last five years.
“Around 80% of our clients are outside Cumbria and we are considering opening a satellite office elsewhere to help generate more work, but we will always remain a Cumbrian business.”
To view Eden Council’s discussion paper, Vision and Opportunities for Eden to 2050, click here.