Eden District Council is using a “twin-track” approach to get the local economy back on track as the lockdown from the coronavirus pandemic continues to ease, chief executive Rose Rouse has said.

Speaking about what the authority has done to help businesses across the vast district during the last few months, the council chief has opened up about how they have tried to “respond to the here and now” while putting plans in place to stabilise the economy in the long term.

Eden, England’s largest district, is dominated by a thinly spread rural sector with Penrith, Appleby, Kirkby Stephen and Alston its main hubs, and this has presented a number of challenges to the council.

This has seen it being one of the two highest areas, just behind neighbouring South Lakeland, in terms of the take-up rate of those furloughed under the governments job retention scheme, amounting to 39 per cent of employments.

Speaking of how the Eden authority has approached the pandemic, Mrs Rouse said: “Its been remarkable how responsive we have had to be. We knew that we had to get everything in place very quickly and I’ve been really impressed with how we’ve responded.

“We had a twin-track approach, responding to the here and now in the early days while putting a support plan in place to help local businesses recover and providing what resources we could to help businesses be as robust as possible. What we did not want to see was a lot of companies going out of business and people losing their jobs, and so we have put a lot of focus on that.

“Its OK to just say that you’re looking to the future, but people need to look after their families and put food on the table in the here and now as there has been – and will be – a lot of individual hardships.”

Mrs Rouse was appointed as chief executive in July 2018. Before that she was corporate director at Worcester City Council and her background includes a time working at Cumbria Constabulary. Since being at the council she has managed a push to modernise and re-structure with a number of changes, including the better use of an online portal, trimming the number of senior managers, plans to move the council to one site and implanting an in-house performance traffic-light system.

These changes have been thoroughly tested during lockdown, and due to the council already recently modernising its IT systems, unlike other authorities Mrs Rouse confirmed the transfer to home-working and doing video meetings via Zoom and other applications has been “nearly seamless”.

Eden deferred 625 customers their council tax payments at the start of June. Meanwhile 85 businesses applied for discretionary relief immediately on the first day it was available while since then more than 2,000 businesses have applied for support with the council providing £22.5m through a mix of support, relief or deferments.

Looking forward, the authority has been working heavily in partnership with others across Cumbria in what has been termed ‘Team Cumbria’ and Rose stated she has been in regular meetings with her opposite numbers as well as the government’s ministers and officials.

She said: “The government have been good in being in a listening mode to what we’ve seen on the ground and how to respond to it. They had to move quickly throughout the stages, and the support they’ve put in place makes me feel they’ve listened to us, our needs and the needs of our businesses and workforces.

“There are still some gaps and businesses stuck outside of the support packages in place, but a lot more analysis has been and is being done in the hope that will change.”

She also stated that the council has been in constant dialogue with towns and parish councils at the other end of the spectrum in terms of helping gauge and understand local needs. She said the way local people and communities responded was “absolutely fantastic” and showed “great resilience”.

They have also used the media through local newspapers and social platforms like Twitter and Facebook to better communicate with people of all ages. Mrs Rouse said this was “vital” in an area with a super-ageing population.

Cumbria’s crucial tourism industry has been hit across the board by what many have referred to as the ‘three winter syndrome’, with its main summer season being hit. Others such as both Lake District NPA chief Richard Leafe and Barrow Borough Council chief executive Sam Plum have highlighted the hope that staycations post-lockdown and extending the season could remedy that, which Mrs Rouse is in line with.

She said: “The tourism industry is central to Eden and we’ve worked hard on the Visit Eden brand and that is a network we are pushing at the moment as we look to make it as attractive as possible.

“Obviously the Lake District is a special place but the Eden Valley in itself is absolutely beautiful so we’re hoping as many new people that haven’t explored Eden before come and experience the area, which will really help those hospitality businesses that are struggling, and helping small businesses most at risk has been one of our biggest challenges.

“One of the first things we did was in late May we had two planning meetings, as that is a real engine room for the local economy and it was important to help get the building sector moving again.”