JOHN Partington, owner of Oxford Covered Market’s now defunct Chocology shop, summed up the thoughts of some traders when he landed a barbed parting shot at owners Oxford City Council.

Mr Partington – whose rent was recommended to go from £35,000 to £40,000 – this month told the Oxford Mail: “They are trying to screw us all the time.”

The departure of the shop – which had been operating in the 239-year-old city centre venue since 2001 – is the latest twist in a saga that the Labour-run authority says it is doing everything it can to resolve.

The market appears to be at a turning point. Traders spoken to by the Mail say footfall is down, though council leader Bob Price says it has a high number of visitors and it’s the offer that is often lacking.

The authority believes action is needed to boost traders’ profits and is spending £44,000 on a retail consultants’ report, due in the coming two months.

The council has a vested interest in doing this – it wants to put rents up by as much as 70 per cent and is awaiting results from an independent adjudicator on five businesses, which will then determine the rest.

But executive board member for city development Colin Cook said: “The actual rents are relatively low compared to many High Street retailers and the tenants also get many other benefits such as cleaning and insurance that High Street retailers don’t.”

Pointing to an average rent of £16,800, he said: “It would be difficult to rent a shop in Oxford city centre at this level, even in the secondary locations.

“What we have asked for is the market level. In the dim and distant past we haven’t.”

Some rents were hiked in 2007. Reviews take place every five years but the 2012 increases have been postponed until the adjudicator makes a ruling.

The authority says it is upholding its end of the bargain by keeping out “multiple” chains to preserve the market’s character, but Mr Cook said the door has to swing both ways.

He said: “The traders need to work with us to improve the offer and provide stuff that people want to buy.”

Traders say promotion and better signage to its entrances in Market Street and High Street is key, as an estimated five per cent of Cornmarket Street shoppers take a right turn to the market.

The council said it had “paid for advertising and promotion” but refused to provide figures, saying traders “also need to invest in their future through positive advertising and promotion”.

And it scored something of an own goal when it put up a blue, flat entrance sign in Market Street in May, because traders said shoppers could not read the brass letters placed above it.

Mr Cook said even the council’s conservation officers “were a bit disappointed at how visible it was” but the letters were aimed at being “sympathetic” to the historic building. A “monolith” concrete post was added to High Street in November to draw shoppers in.

The council says it invested £520,000 in the Grade II listed building in the last year and is putting in £280,000 this year, including a new fire sprinkler system.

Council leader Bob Price said improving the look of the market further is expected to be a key recommendation from consultants The Retail Group, along with what businesses are needed to thrive long-term.

The council refused to provide footfall visitor figures but Mr Price said: “Footfall isn’t a problem. The footfall in the city centre, particularly in the context of the tourist period, is huge.”

He said what shops offer is the key. “You no longer get people who wander in with a basket to get a pound of carrots or packet of fish. You need to look at the sort of thing that is going to appeal more to the leisure shopper.”

More “niche” shops are needed, he said, because food stalls have been hit by supermarkets, including two Tesco and two Sainsbury stores in the city.

Stores at the market include newsagents, butchers, hair salons and flower stalls sit alongside luxury luggage outlets, a mobile phone shop, cafe and jewellers.

Chris Farren, chairman of the Covered Market Traders’ Association, said rent is not the “be all and end all” but it must tally with footfall.

Mr Farren, who runs The Cake Shop, said: “We need to change the perception of the market, we need a better awareness from Cornmarket Street, we need signs directing them.”

The consultants took traders to London markets such as Covent Garden and Spitalfields, which Mr Farren said benefited from a on-site manager, an issue set to be addressed in the final report.

He said: “Every market we went to has a marketing budget to promote the market. Our council doesn’t.

“If you look at the Clarendon Centre they have a marketing budget, they deck the place out at Christmas. Any decorations we see are put up by traders.”

Karin Caple, of saddlers C.H Brown and Son said: “The fabric of the building is not being maintained to a decent standard. We get damp problems when it rains, which can put people off.

“It is under-promoted. A lot of people don’t realise that it is here. Promotion is the main thing – get them in here.”

'We need an active. committed market manager'

JOY Hetherington, of Oxford Aromatics toiletries shop, joined the delegation to markets in London and is convinced Oxford needs an “active, committed, market manager”.

She said: “We just want someone that takes responsibility for our interaction with the community.”

Despite investment, she said parts are still “half painted” and “grotty” and the proposed 44 per cent rent increase on her space jars with a two per cent increase in turnover last year.

Add this to £5,000 a year business rates and she said: “That means I have to live on day to day. If the footfall was better we could pay more rent.”

'City centre supermarkets are hitting trade'

BUTCHER David Gonzalez criticised the city council for giving planning permission to Tesco and Sainsbury’s to set up at city locations such as St Clements.

The manager of Haymans Fisheries and Meatmaster said: “We are losing out because of supermarkets.

“I am surprised they have allowed the Tesco and Sainsbury’s to creep into the city centre. They are allowing too many in.”

He echoed a familiar gripe from city traders about Oxford’s high parking charges, which leave little change from £10 for up to four hours. He said: “Customers go to our place in Osney because they can park outside.”

Entrances must be more inviting

CHANGE around the Market Street entrance – the route used by most shoppers – is vital to bring more visitors in, said James Durkin, of Cardews of Oxford tea and coffee merchants.

Parking spaces that obscure the entrance could be restricted until 11am, while a roller shutter should be painted and come down to block views of the service yard to the side, he said.

He said: “If that means people in here have to make a sacrifice on where our vehicles are kept, so be it.”

Mr Durkin – manager of the store, which was established in 1948 – is facing a 56 per cent rent increase on his £20,000 annual rent. He said: “I honestly don’t know whether or not we would be able to generate enough turnover to afford to stay. We do make a profit but it doesn’t grow, it is more survival.

“The footfall is down every year, it was happening before the recession.”

He said of the market’s future: “It is offering good quality at reasonable prices. There is a higher end feel, which we want to push.”