THE new manager of Oxford’s Covered Market has pledged to turn it into a world-class shopping venue.
Oxford City Council appointed Elaine Philip to run the historic market – regarded as the jewel in the crown of the city’s shopping centre – following a report it commissioned which found that it was dark, dirty and not publicised well-enough.
Having been in post for a few weeks, Ms Philip has already started making changes to the way the market is run.
She said: “I have started to meet the traders one by one now because it is good to know them and understand their businesses and how I can work with them. I have had long lists of things I need to do from them, which is fine, that’s what I’m here for.
“Some of the things we have done already will be obvious to the public while others will be not so obvious.
“There are flower tubs by the entrances now and we have taken down the Christmas lights and given the market a deep clean. We are putting the operatives through training for cleaning at height.
“It is important that I am seen to be in the market and that the traders see me around. We have already started work on initiatives like the website.
“I would like to see the Covered Market up there with the best.”
The market's entrance has been spruced up with tubs of welcoming flowers
Relations between the city council and the Covered Market traders have soured in recent years because of the acrimonious rent row, with the council originally proposing to increase rents by up to 70 per cent.
The proposal, put forward in 2012, met fierce opposition from traders and the matter was taken to an independent arbitrator.
In an initial test case of five units, the arbitrator recommended an increase of just 7.3 per cent but the city council said there was an error in the calculations and said it would not honour its agreement to roll out the findings across the market. Instead it proposed an increase of 20 per cent but the traders didn’t accept this and the 40 traders who are members of the Covered Market Traders’ Association went to arbitration in May.
The issue is gradually being settled by arbitration but to tackle the issue of the Covered Market the council commissioned an independent report into how it is run.
This found “major issues” related to housekeeping, particularly the fact the Christmas lights never seemed to have been taken down.
A sketch of how the Market Street entrance could be improved, with new stalls outside the market and cars and vans removed to make it more attractive and increase footfall from Cornmarket Street
Ms Philip, who has no say over the issue of rents because this is decided in the council’s property department, said: “It is difficult for me to comment on what has happened in the past.
“You could spend a fortune on the Covered Market very easily but it is public money so we have got to be careful and there are some very obvious easy wins.
“I am looking at what sort of events we can do in the market at all times of year, such as at Christmas or for a major milestone like the market’s birthday. I am also looking at advertising and signage.”
James Durkin, manager of tea and coffee traders Cardews & Co, welcomed her appointment.
He said: “I am pleased somebody is there to put in some ideas and see what the traders actually need.
“It is a little early to judge anything yet. The council didn’t and still doesn’t communicate very well with the traders.
“It is nice to see something positive come about, but it is step one of many steps that are needed to help regenerate the place.”
Tammie Norton, owner of saddlers CH Brown & Sons, said: “I like her and it means that instead of everybody having their own little gripes there is someone who can act on our behalf.
“The council still needs to sort itself out though.
“We are a significant part of Oxford and if the council keeps putting up our rents it will push us out and ruin the reputation of the Covered Market.”
Originally from Aberdeen, Ms Philip has about 30 years’ experience in retail. She has previously worked for Whittard of Chelsea, Newby, Homebase and Wedgewood and for the past seven years has worked as a retail consultant.
Consultants suggest ways forward
LAST year, the city council commissioned a report from independent consultants The Retail Group to look into how the Covered Market is run and how it could change.
Among its recommendations was the appointment of a Covered Market manager.
The report also proposed:
- More external trading
- A programme of events
- Better cleaning
- The removal of cars and vans from Market Street
- Increasing the size of the market
- A new entrance on Market Street with a roof terrace.
According to The Retail Group it would be possible to create an extra 410sqm of retail floorspace in the Covered Market by making alterations.
This could be both at ground floor and first-floor level.
Although the company admits the costs might be prohibitive, it goes on to say there would be significant benefits as it would increase the selling area by 32 per cent.
The Retail Group also proposed a new entrance in Market Street, with the possibility of external stalls, and a roof terrace for a restaurant or cafe.
Ms Philip said: “I think the dynamic of the long-term objectives for the market might change.
“It is under constant review and you would do that in most projects anyway.”
Years of history
THE Covered Market dates back to the 18th century when it was decided to get rid of the “untidy, messy and unsavoury stalls” of the existing street markets in Fish Street, now St Aldate’s, and Butcher Row, now Queen Street.
The market building was designed by John Gwynn, the architect responsible for Magdalen Bridge, and the new venue opened on November 1, 1774.