The Future of the Covered Market

Our response to the report on the future of the market commissioned by the City Council

29 November 2013

Oxford City Council commissioned a report on the future of the Covered Market from The Retail Group. The report was published in October 2013 and comments were invited from the public. This is Oxford Civic Society’s response.

The Covered Market, Oxford
The Covered Market

Thank you for inviting the Oxford Civic Society to the two workshops held as part of The Retail Group’s investigations into Oxford’s Covered Market. We found these helpful and informative. We are delighted that Oxford City Council recognises the need for such a study. It is the view of the Society that the Covered Market is one of Oxford’s treasures, but that it is in long term decline and without action will continue to deteriorate.

We note the City Council’s consultation process currently underway. We have encouraged our members to respond to the on-line consultation. This note contains our comments on the Retails Group’s report.

In general we find the report hugely encouraging. We fully endorse its conclusions and recommendations. We cannot fault their diagnosis of what’s wrong. We are convinced that if the report’s recommendations are implemented in full the market will develop into a stronger asset for Oxford, and will support the financial health of the city as a destination for tourists and residents alike. Their categorisation of actions into short and long term seems sensible. Indeed, if the short term measures work it should give confidence that the long term measures will work too. One of the short term recommendations, implementing a new cleaning regime (8.10), seems so self-evident and so vital that it should be done without delay.

Main concerns

We have two main concerns – are the traders and the City Council up to it?

Traders: We agree that the traders need to improve their game. Will the traders willingly improve their premises, take part in promotions, improve their service, give up parking their vans in Market Street during trading hours, etc? Can relationships between the traders and the City Council be mended? We would assume that if the City Council takes on board the recommendations of this report, including changes to a new mix and leasing model, and a new management structure, then improvements to trader performance will follow.

City Council: Of greater concern is whether the City Council can deliver. Can the Council realistically recruit & support a £75k Head of Markets and get a good one who drives the programme? Can the Council find the investment, given its other priorities? Will the Council manage the market as a long term asset for the City? We think that paragraph 9.7 of the report is particularly telling “Whilst it has been managed as a property asset, this approach has not focused on consumer marketing, tenant strategy, trader performance, retail standards, web presence, reputation and service standards”. The choice of Cards Galore as a new trader in the market was perhaps a good exemplar of the Council’s recent way of thinking. It would be a good step to acknowledge this as a mistake!

Vision for the market

The proposed vision for the market (paragraph 6.0) is:

“Oxford Covered Market will be a very visible, relevant and integral part of the city’s retail landscape.
It will host high quality, best in class independent retailers and innovative caterers in an outstanding and memorable environment and building.
It will be a must-visit experience, with a local, national and international reputation that will have multiple attractions and be focussed on the needs of all key Oxford consumer groups.”

We think that articulation of the vision for the market is a crucial first step, and we are comfortable with the thrust of the above statement. But the above is hardly memorable, nor is it particularly applicable to Oxford’s covered market. Indeed the first and last paragraphs and much of the second could apply to locations such as the proposed Westgate centre. The critical words are “high quality, best in class independent retailers and innovative caterers”. We would recommend that a more concise vision is articulated and one that describes better the uniqueness of the building. And one which captures attention when put up on the Market Manager’s wall!

Specific comments

The style of building is a great asset, and is a large part of the market’s attractiveness. The building has a very attractive Victorian core that has been added to, and in some cases abused, over the years. We recommend a heritage assessment is carried out (maybe one exists), against which changes to the physical structure can be evaluated.

There is a clear case for redeveloping the Market Street frontage to make the market more visible. Also, the suggestion of a restaurant or restaurants at first floor level is worth considering. Clearly the choice of architectural style of such an extension will be critical. The existing upper storey and roof line are interesting and reflect the character of the building. A good architect could certainly design an extension and first floor restaurant that maintains the character of the building. We appreciate that the designs shown in the report (9.3, 9.4) are illustrative only.

There is no mention in the report of the underground storage area below the market at the Market Street end. We understand part of it is still used by Hayman’s, who ran their wholesale business from underneath their shop until a few years ago. Is this a possible area for redevelopment? In many cities restaurants in cellars are a tourist attraction.

The option of using a specialist retail management company should be examined very seriously, rather than directly employing a Covered Market Manager. A specialist company should be able to bring sound experience and might be able to make much more rapid progress in the short term with reviewing the letting policy and in developing the strategy. It is perhaps relevant to note that Gloucester Green market is much improved following the recent appointment of two external management organisations.