Market traders angry after council refuses rent figure

The Oxford Times: Joy Hetherington of Oxford Aromatics with Oxford Covered Market traders, who are angry at the city council, which they say is failing to honour an agreement about rent arbitration. Picture: OX66091  Damian Halliwe Buy this photo Joy Hetherington of Oxford Aromatics with Oxford Covered Market traders, who are angry at the city council, which they say is failing to honour an agreement about rent arbitration. Picture: OX66091 Damian Halliwe

TRADERS in Oxford’s historic Covered Market face months more of uncertainty as a row over a proposed rent rise continues.

Oxford City Council has refused to pass on the rise recommended by an independent arbitrator to traders, who have accused it of going back on its word.

But the council has claimed there was a mistake in the arbitrator’s calculations, meaning it could not pass on the proposed rent.

It has instead proposed a rent rise which is in line with inflation since the rents were last reviewed in 2007 – which is 20 per cent.

This means that yet another round of arbitration could take place in respect of the rents of 40 market businesses.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) was asked to intervene over rents after the city council proposed putting them up by as much as 70 per cent.

The city council had said it would roll out the arbitrator’s findings across the market, but since an increase of just 7.3 per cent has been recommended to five traders in a test case, the authority has backed out of this agreement.

Traders, represented by the Covered Market Traders’ Association (CMTA), said they would hold the council to its commitment.

Vicki Alder, of Macsamillion shoe shop, said: “If the council doesn’t want to budge there is not much more we can say.

“I don’t accept that there are mistakes in the ruling and if the council feels so strongly about it they should appeal.”

The arbitrator’s findings were in relation to five test case units. A second arbitration, relating to about 40 members of the CMTA, was put on hold pending the smaller review, with the city council agreeing to apply its findings to the larger group.

It is now offering the larger group a 20 per cent rise, but the traders will not accept.

John Gowing, of John Gowing Jewellers, said: “I think 7.3 per cent is a fair amount, even though footfall in the Covered Market is down.

“They initially wanted 66 per cent from me and no sane person could dream that is a realistic increase.”

The rent reviews date from 2012, so traders owe nearly two years’ back rent, but still do not know how much.

Joy Hetherington, of Oxford Aromatics, said: “The city council didn’t have to offer that they would give us all the same rent, but they did then they changed their mind.”

The Oxford Mail asked the city council to provide a copy of the arbitrator’s report, but it refused.

City council spokesman Louisa Dean said: “The award set increases of between 16 and 27 per cent. However, an error in the award calculations has reduced this to between three and 12 per cent.

“Awards cannot be withdrawn or altered except for clerical errors.

“The council has written to those units not covered by this award to propose an average increase that is broadly in line with inflation since 2007.

“While the council would have wished to apply the result of the arbitration to the other units that were not covered by the award it is not able to do this due to the error in the assessment.

“If the remaining traders wish to contest the council’s proposals, a new arbitrator will be appointed.”

An RICS spokeswoman said: “The arbitrator was appointed by the president of RICS. Once the appointment is made, RICS has no legal authority to interfere. The alleged miscalculation is a matter that must be resolved between the parties using the mechanisms available under the Arbitration Act 1996.”

She could not say if there was a mistake, as this was a matter for the arbitrator.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

  • July 2012: Rent rises of up to 70 per cent announced for the next five years
  • October 2012: One in six traders looking to sell up because of the rent increase, it is claimed
  • April 2013: Traders say the market is in battle for its life as they fail to reach an agreement and the dispute goes to arbitration
  • May 2013: Oxford City Council’s development chief Colin Cook accuses traders of talking down the market
  • July 2013: The city council says it expects result of arbitration process in August
  • Aug 2013: No result issued as the process is beset by delays
  • March 2014: Arbitrators recommend 7.3 per cent rise but the issue remains unresolved

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