Policymakers in Carlisle are seeking to address the long-term challenges facing the city, including the fact that the number of people aged 16 to 24 living in the district fell by nearly 20 per cent in less than 10 years.

Carlisle City Council is in the process of constructing its longer-term economic strategy, which will help guide the authority in the actions it will take to address the longer-term issues facing the district.

The latest draft of this strategy was presented last Thursday to the city council's economic growth scrutiny panel, which was asked to suggest improvements in advance of it being presented to the council's executive next month.

Corporate director of economic development, Jane Meek and regeneration manager Steven Robinson fielded questions from panel members, who also suggested a number of improvements to the draft strategy.

The strategy forms part of the wider framework of strategies relating to the city's future, including the Borderlands project, the Cumbria Local Industrial Strategy and the Carlisle Town Investment Plan.

The impact Covid-19 has had on Carlisle is also factored into the strategy.

Key factors identified in the strategy as issues facing Carlisle long-term are its declining working age population; a comparative lack of skilled jobs and high wages in its local economy; a city centre over-reliant on retail and a population with "inconsistent" access to good quality transport links and superfast broadband.

Key opportunities Carlisle has to tackle these issues include its affordable house prices and its "beautiful rural surroundings" - both strong selling points to convince people to move to the area, particularly as remote working is likely to become more commonplace in the post-Covid world.

Steven Robinson explained: "Carlisle has that unique position of being able to offer all the benefits of a city, but have that high quality countryside environment on your doorstep.

"There's not many places that can offer that balance.

"That's something that Carlisle has, as quite a unique selling point, that we need to capture and build on.

"It's also a very affordable place to live as well. That plays into that opportunity."

Carlisle's geographic position is also identified in the strategy as a benefit, as the "regional capital of the Borderlands".

The district is described as having "significant growth potential", through the development of the St Cuthbert's Garden Village, which is set to deliver 10,000 new homes.

In addition it will help provide "over 9,000 new jobs and support the reversal of the declining working age population."

This declining working age population is identified as one of the central challenges facing Carlisle, as many of the city's younger people move away for work or education.

This has been a consistent trend through the past decade. From 2011 to 2019, Carlisle's 16-24 age group declined by 18 per cent, and its 25 to 49 age group declined eight per cent.

Meanwhile, in the same period, there was a 19 per cent rise in the number of people above the age of 65. Similar patterns have been seen across Cumbria, though the drop in Carlisle's 16 to 24 age group has been more marked.

In light of the sharp drop in the number of young people in Carlisle seen in the past decade, the council's emerging economic strategy identifies that "there is a need to improve the offer for young people in the city".

It concludes that the University of Cumbria is "key" to achieving this.

At present, many of the university's graduates move away from the area once their studies are complete, "to continue postgraduate careers", the strategy explains.

One of the key issue it identifies as driving this is the current small size of the area's creative and digital sectors, which account for only two per cent of Carlisle's employment.

Despite its small size, Mr Robinson praised the strength of the creative and digital sector in Carlisle, adding that the council hopes to "nurture" it.

"We've got a really good digital and creative sector in Carlisle. It's quite hidden and it's a bit under the radar, and that's because the infrastructure isn't there for them, particularly in terms of the business space they need," he said.

"Some of the projects we are developing - co-working space, shared office space, networking space, these are the types of premises this sector needs. They've got very specific ways of working that don't fit in with the usual."

Improving the district's digital infrastructure is another top priority for the strategy.

It notes that the proportion of people with access to superfast broadband in Carlisle is significantly lower than nationally - 46.2 per cent compared to 95 per cent.

"Poor digital and transport connectivity holds our city back", the strategy concludes, leaving the city "less resilient to the

shocks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic".

Conservative councillor Mike Mitchelson said ensuring greater access to superfast broadband was vital, "if we're going to try and encourage digital business."

The council hopes to tackle this through the Borderlands project with a "digital voucher scheme", as well as investing in a new "innovation centre for the digital sector" as part of its Citadels project.

Another issue addressed by the strategy is the high number of people in Carlisle "concentrated in low skilled, low wage sectors, such as retail", adding that this makes up nearly 20 per cent of all the district's employment.

At just under £21,000, average annual earnings in Carlisle are lower than Cumbria as a whole by a little more than £3,000, and more than £4,000 lower than the England average.

While scrutiny panel chairperson, Labour councillor Lisa Brown, welcomed the prospect of raising wages in Carlisle, she raised a concern about the possibility of "gentrification" being a consequence of focusing on growing the higher wage sectors.

"If we're bringing in higher paid jobs, how do we avoid a greater divide in inequality between them and the people who keep our shops going, all the key workers who have worked throughout this pandemic?" she asked Ms Meek.

Supporting the further development of the University of Cumbria in Carlisle is central, Ms Meek said, in addressing this, as is supporting Carlisle College, given that both institutions can provide local people with the opportunity to "upskill".

The draft economic strategy aims to deliver support to the university through the delivery of a new campus in the historic Citadels buildings close to the railway station, as part of the Borderlands project.

Ms Meek added that ensuring access to a variety of housing is also an important piece of the puzzle.

"We've commenced discussions with Riverside about what they're going to do about their housing stock," she said, adding that to ensure growth is inclusive, a combined focus on education, jobs and housing was all required.

A further challenge for Carlisle identified by the strategy is a "lack of city centre vibrancy", given its heavy reliance on retail, low numbers living in the city centre and a comparatively small nighttime economy.

As such, Carlisle is "highly vulnerable" to fluctuations in the retail sector, something the strategy says is "exemplified by the closure of Debenhams".

The strategy underlines the role of the Future High Street Fund and the Town Deal in seeking to revitalise and help diversify Carlisle city centre.

It also focuses on the importance of supporting the growth of Carlisle's visitor economy, noting that it is "underperforming" in attracting tourists compared to similar sized cities such as Lincoln, Norwich and York.

Mr Robinson stressed that it was the council's hope to be able to support a diversification of what is on offer in the city centre.

"Carlisle's retail core has been very strong. What we need to do is try and diversify so the city centre has a better offer in terms of leisure and culture, and also to try and introduce more business and residential uses as well."

Mr Robinson said this would help promote more footfall into the city centre throughout the day and into the evenings.