STRUGGLING small business owners trying to bounce back from the coronavirus lockdown are accusing Oxford City Council of all words and no action after it refused to heed their calls for rent relief.

They accused the council of 'appalling' and 'unprofessional' behaviour as a landlord, in refusing requests for help, despite the authority urging businesses to seek such assistance from other landlords.

While the council insists it is doing everything it can to help retailers, one trader said it was time for the council to 'put its money where its mouth is'.

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Céline Wills owns the The Handle Bar cafe and kitchen in St Michael Street, Oxford, and said small traders were on their knees.

She said: "The city council as our landlord has been nothing short of appalling.

"The council sent a letter to all businesses back in March laying out the steps to be taken to keep your business afloat during lockdown. One was to contact your landlord to get a rent holiday or deferral. But when contacted as our landlord, the answer from the council was 'oh, not us!'.

"This leaves our business in complete uncertainty and dire straits – scrambling to get the money together for the rent when fully shut."

Mrs Wills, who also runs the neighbouring Le Bar, welcomed help available elsewhere, such as the Government's Covid-19 discretionary grants and Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership's Business Resilience Fund. But she said: "These are helpful, but it's not the council actually helping at a grassroots level. The council has taken no initiative to help its tenants. There are private commercial landlords out there doing more.

"The council should be seeing this as an opportunity to create a community and reinforce all relationships but they are failing."

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Stuart Meanwell runs the neighbouring Bike Zone which has just re-opened. He said: "Not all bike shops are experiencing a boom. Shops in the centres of cities are very quiet. There is little prospect of our business picking up in the city centre until all the university departments, colleges, council offices and language schools start to get their staff back in, which is unlikely to be before the autumn.

Oxford Mail:

"Unfortunately, our landlord in the city centre is Oxford City Council. This is the same Oxford City Council which is all over the press and social media claiming to be supportive of local businesses through the Covid crisis, advising tenants to negotiate rent holidays or rent reductions with their landlords.

"But, as we know, actions speak louder than words, so how much discount or how much of a rent holiday will they allow us through this period when we're struggling to get going again? Nothing. Zero.

"Even the majority of private landlords have managed to work out that they need to help their tenants through this, so that they are there at the end of the crisis to carry on with their tenancy.

"The council has behaved terribly and has been very unprofessional. It needs to put its money where its mouth is."

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An Oxford gift shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was also struggling with rent.

He said: "We have five shops in Oxford and if landlords do not agree on waiving the rents for this quarter, then we will have to shut our stores forever.

"One of the landlords is Oxford City Council and even they are not ready to help us. I contacted the council for a grant but they refused and, moreover, pushed me to pay March's rent which we can’t afford to pay. I said we'd go into administration if they didn't waive the rent.

"There will be lots of empty shops in Oxford in the coming months."

Oxford Mail:

It is understood council tenants in the Covered Market, however, had their rent waived when the market closed.

City council spokesman Mish Tullar said: "We have worked hard to provide support to all our retail tenants over this period, including those at the Covered Market. The terms of any agreement with tenants is bespoke to their circumstances and as such remain confidential.

“Businesses are the lifeblood of Oxford and its economy, and we have also issued tens of millions of pounds of grants and rate relief, changed the city centre to enable businesses to reopen, and successfully lobbied the Government for additional financial support for businesses.

“At the same time, Oxford City Council is itself facing a £24m shortfall in funding due to the cost of responding to the Covid-19 crisis in the city, and sharply reduced income. We are doing what we can to reduce our costs, but we do need to ask businesses – who may be in receipt of government support – to pay rent. This money is needed to fund vital frontline support services for Oxford’s most vulnerable residents.”

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Anna Munday of Independent Oxford – which represents small traders in the city – said: "Since lockdown we have spoken to many businesses across Oxford who have struggled to find balanced and fair agreements with their landlords. Some of them have the city council as their landlord, others have colleges or private landlords.

"What we have witnessed is no standard response.

"Within the city council we've witnessed some departments and teams going above and beyond to support 'indies', however, it doesn't seem to be the case across the whole organisation. Some departments need to be more forward thinking in their approach as we come out of lockdown.