TRADERS in the Covered Market, Oxford, claim big rent increases could drive out the small businesses that give the market its individuality.

They are unhappy that Oxford City Council, which set out a strategy to preserve the market's 'boutique-style' and encourage sole traders, proposes to raise rents, by up to 200 per cent in some cases.

Rents range from about £6,000 for smaller premises to about £60,000.

Richard Alden, manager of Hayman's Fisheries, and chairman of the Covered Market Tenants' Association, said the increases which varied from business to business, would bring rents more in line with those in prime locations like Cornmarket Street and High Street.

But he said: "The Covered Market can't be likened to the High Street.

"It has limited access, it has restricted trading hours, it's in a very old building. There are a lot of things the high street enjoys that the market just doesn't have."

He said unless the council reconsidered its plans, many traders would be priced out, adding: "The reason high streets don't have a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker is because they can't afford the levels of rent.

"If they want to pull the market down and put in a new shopping mall and all the shops that you get in every shopping mall in the country, that's fine. But that's not what the council's strategy was about."

In 2002, traders ended a four-year row with the council over proposals to increase rents.

Councillors eventually sanctioned a rent increase of about 20 per cent for the 42 traders in the market.

The agreement, brokered by the Labour administration, followed a lengthy stand-off between the previous Liberal Democrat-Green leadership and the traders.

The row went to court and, at one point, the High Court suggested the council should increase rents by 33 per cent.

But traders refused to pay, and further court cases were pending when an agreement was finally reached. Mr Alden said traders did not want to go to court again and hoped negotiations could secure a 'fair and reasonable' figure that would reflect the uniqueness of the market.

Oxford City Council spokesman Louisa Dean said she was unable to give any comment on the issue because the council was in commercial negotiations.