A FRESH battle over rents at Oxford’s historic Covered Market is looming after traders were told they face hikes of up to 25 per cent.

Landlord Oxford City Council has told stall leaseholders they will have to pay an average of £62 extra per week, a rise it says is below market value.

Bosses have also offered annual increases linked to inflation, which would likely cost less overall.

But the group representing traders accused the local authority of not ‘recognising reality’, with some saying they would struggle to cope with the extra costs.

Butcher David John, who has been there for more than 20 years, said: “We have only just had a big increase in recent years and I am still paying back-rent from that.

“I would be concerned by any increase. It would hurt our business.

“There have been some improvements to the market but it is still a bit of an eyesore in parts and because of the work on the Westgate and the roadworks, fewer people are coming in to Oxford.”

The disagreement threatens to reignite a previous two-year row, started when the council proposed average rent rises of 50 per cent in 2012.

Speaking this week, city council executive director David Edwards said the latest proposal had come after £3.4m of investment in the market, including improvements such as roof repairs, lighting, fire sprinkler systems, cleaning and drainage, although the tenants' association questions the impact this has had.

Mr Edwards added: “This is a fair offer and, by offering inflation rises, we are also proposing something that has been asked for in the past.

“We know any rises in rents will be sensitive and we have to accept that.

“There are some with very low increases and others with higher increases, but we have capped the maximum at 25 per cent.

“It is important to stress there is very clear evidence of demand and a strong city centre economy.”

Mr Edwards said consultants hired by the council recommended an average rent increase of 35 per cent, but the authority decided to reduce this,

He said: “The council has a legal duty to get the best value from its property assets, but it also wants the market to be a success.

“We decided to look at this afresh and have made this proposal on the basis there is a willingness to reach agreement.”

The Covered Market has 54 retail units, of which four are currently empty.

According to a survey, central Oxford retailers have seen a boost of more than 10 per cent in the last year, compared to 4.5 per cent nationally.

Retail rents in the Covered Market are also about £63 per sq ft or less, the council said, compared to around £200 at the top of High Street.

But the Covered Market Tenants Association said the strong city centre economy had not lead to more footfall for traders in the market.

In a joint statement, its directors said: “The retail report prepared by the council’s consultants some two or three years ago identified an urgent need to refurbish the Covered Market and to increase the footfall.

“Whilst the council has spent rather more on the market than it does in normal years, most of the expenditure has been due to under-investment.

“There is little obvious evidence of anything by of way improvements or promotion of the market making it more attractive for shoppers or improving the shopping experience.

“The report also noted that the footfall continues to decline whilst the rest of the city was going up and that remains the case today.

“The council does nothing to encourage tenants to invest. On the contrary, it consistently seeks rent increases without recognising the reality.

“As is usual, members of the association have appointed agents to advise them and to negotiate with the council on their behalf and will expect any settlement to properly reflect all pertinent factors such as footfall levels and the likely impact of the new Westgate Centre”.

Alaa Hamed, owner of Oxford Souvenirs, said he was expecting a rent rise of 15 per cent and thought that was ‘OK’.

He added: “I think it is reasonable. Last time they asked one of my neighbours for a 70 per cent rise.”

The previous row over market rents was resolved after lengthy talks and an arbitration process, with a compromise eventually seeing traders accept a 16 per cent rise at the end of 2014, including an agreement to also pay back rent.

It came after an independent arbitrator suggested a rise of 7.3 per cent. The council insists this was a result of 'miscalculations'.