TRADERS and shoppers fear the arrival of a Cards Galore shop is the start of an influx of national chains which will increase rents and drive out independent stores from Oxford’s historic Covered Market.

The former Palms delicatessen unit in the Oxford City Council-owned Covered Market remained empty for two years until the council agreed to let it to the national greeting card retailer Cards Galore in December.

But the move has upset traders, councillors and property experts, who says it flies in the face of the market’s leasing strategy against accommodating high street chains.

Traders also fear the financial muscle of national chains will see the rents demanded by the council go up, as another round of lease reviews looms.

Covered Market Traders’ Association secretary Sandie Grifftith said: “The council needs to clarify its policy and tell us whether it is now open house for chains. The Covered Market should not be the place for chains.”

Colin Dawson, 56, of David John Butchers, opposite Cards Galore, said: “It’s a worrying development that a chain has been allowed in.”

Owner of The Hat Box, Gillian Senior, said: “Chains don’t have to worry so much about rents, so I think it’s unfair competition if they are allowed to come in.”

The market’s leasing strategy document states: “Applications for change of use where the lease is to be assigned to a high street multiple will not generally be permitted unless there is a real and positive benefit to the balance of trades/diversity."

City councillor for city development Colin Cook said: “The leasing strategy does not say that there should be ‘no national chains’.

“This argument has been well rehearsed previously when Timpsons the shoe repairers took a lease.

“Timpsons added to the diversity of trades in the market then, as I believe will Cards Galore in the future.”

However, in June last year Mr Cook said the council had a commitment to “maintaining the character of the market, the balance of uses and our policy of excluding national retail chains” and “not compromising on these principles”.

Lord Mayor of Oxford Elise Benjamin said: “The danger is that the council has become so obsessed with rent levels that it has lost sight of the wider picture.

“It is the multiples that can pay the rents. But we run the risk of turning Oxford into a clone city.”

The council advertised the Palms site for rent at £40,000 a year. The Oxford Mail understands it is renting the unit to Cards Galore for £36,000, with the first nine months free.

John Partington, a former director of the Covered Market Traders’ Association and owner of chocolate shop Chocology, offered the council £25,000 for the site two years ago – the rent paid by the previous tenant – plus six months’ arrears. It was rejected.

He said traders were worried the council might be setting a benchmark in order to argue for higher rents following reviews due next month.

Rupert Sheppard, of Oxford surveyors Cluttons Styles & Whitlock, said: “The letting of the unit to a multiple retailer may be used to apply across-the-board rent increases that would in turn jeopardise the viability of the Covered Market.”

Cards Galore spokesman Rumit Shah said: “We would argue that is better for this unit to be occupied rather than remain vacant.”

* THE Covered Market was launched to clear untidy and unsavoury stalls from the main streets of Oxford and, after 1773, meat was only allowed to be sold inside the market.

The earliest stalls were in colonnaded blocks and the high-raftered roofs of today are the outcome of 19th century rebuilding.

Sunday opening started in 2010 despite the reluctance of some traders to open seven days a week.