Building a Comprehensive Property database in Ealing: Review

By August 2, 2021 August 23rd, 2021 Blog

How Noggin Helped Meet the Challenge of London’s Post Covid High Street Recovery with the Mayor’s Resilience Fund 

This end of project blog outlines how this challenge drove improvements to our product offering by working with Ealing Council and listening to their needs and the needs of their stakeholders. 

Noggin Property, an Ethos-backed venture, was selected as one of the UK’s best innovators by the Mayor of London and Nesta Challenges and to play a role in the city’s recovery from Covid-19.  We were selected to help tackle the Activating High Streets Challenge and worked with their Resilience Partner Ealing Council, on tackling the issues of empty properties. 

Photo montage of Ealing

We’ve just completed our development sprint as part of the challenge. It was very hard work but we learned so much about our product, ourselves and importantly our stakeholders and the people who would benefit from our service. It has provided validation that the work we are doing is needed and an important element of Place Management. This development project has enabled us to significantly upgrade our software capabilities and deliver a service that we are really proud of. 

Ethos Partner Toyubur Rahman FIPM discusses our work with LB Ealing on documenting High Street vacancies

The Mayor of London’s £1m Resilience Fund, delivered in partnership with Nesta Challenges, asked a panel of expert judges to choose innovative businesses that could find creative solutions to the issues caused by the pandemic, such as regenerating high-streets, creating new work spaces and improving air quality. Noggin was selected from a long list of contenders as one of the best candidates to deliver an innovative solution to tackle the challenge laid out  

The challenge:

  • To create a data service that will aggregate multiple data sources related to vacant properties on high streets to help enable the utilisation and occupation of empty spaces.
  • To help local businesses, boroughs, business improvement districts, traders associations and organisations with an interest in activating vacant units on high streets. 

What impact would this make?

  • Reduced vacancy rates contribute to high street vitality, addressing the wider impacts of vacant units including reduced footfall, reduced local pride, poor social cohesion and discouragement of further investment.
  • Increased levels of business incubation and meanwhile-use activity, creating opportunities for micro, small and medium enterprises, including start-ups, entrepreneurs and local enterprises to innovate and experiment.
  • Increased diversity of uses on high streets to ensure that Ealing’s high streets adapt and diversify to fill a broader role, maximizing opportunities to secure social and community value, whilst ensuring that town centres are protected.

Why was this challenge needed and the importance of managing and monitoring commercial property

The number of empty commercial units in town/city centre and high streets up and down the country are rapidly on the increase as the full impacts of Covid-19 materialise. Some have made it through by the skin of their teeth. Others have not as numerous high street stalwarts disappeared from our town and cities. However, for those remaining it is inevitable that many will continue to struggle and adjust to the future high street.

It is clear that towns, cities and high streets have been undergoing a significant structural shift for over a decade. What our towns and cities transition into remains to be seen. The Corona Virus epidemic will have a profound effect on the town centre landscape and accelerate their transformation. It is highly likely the vacancy rate will increase significantly, devastating and demoralising town centres and local communities for years to come. As the days, weeks, months and years pass, the forgotten properties become sad reminders of different times when the high street was “buzzing” with people. They quickly fall into disrepair, attract anti-social behaviour, become eyesores, and a blight on the high street. 

“The … epidemic will have a profound effect on the town centre landscape and accelerate their transformation.”

Long term & high vacancy rates can reduce pride and discourage future investment, leading to a spiral of decline. Whilst engaging with landlords and agents can be exhausting and frustrating. 

In Ealing the London Town Centre Health Check 2017 revealed high vacancy rates in some of the borough’s Town Centres. These long-term trends will likely be exacerbated by current economic conditions.

Vacancy rates are a key performance indicator of how healthy a high street is; and Businesses and members of the public expect Local Authorities and BIDs to have the information they need to tackle the problems. 

Ealing suffers from widespread deprivation and inequality, with 8 out of 23 wards ranked in the top 20% most deprived wards nationally. High levels of pre-existing deprivation and inequality have been further exposed by the pandemic.

Nonetheless, Ealing is an entrepreneurial borough, with over 3,000 creative enterprises and 93% of all businesses classified as micro-sized. There is the opportunity to support these enterprises whilst reactivating vacant units to facilitate the recovery of our high streets.

However, like many local authorities there was no aggregated tracker or mapping of vacancies, resulting in limited opportunities to act strategically to secure better results for occupiers, landlords, high streets and neighbourhoods. 

So the London Borough of Ealing and the Mayor of London challenged us to:

  • develop a nationally recognised approach and methodology to record commercial properties
  • aggregate and map multiple sources of data on commercial properties such as business rates and land registry records  
  • understand and monitor property changes  
  • identify empty properties and help to identify who the responsible parties are
  • ensure this information is easily updated and as accurate as possible
  • help with actionable recommendations based on accurate and up to date data.
  • provide a  comprehensive real-time view including ability to compare current data with historic data, helping to better identify and respond to trends. 
  • evaluate the impact of interventions.
  • provide an easy to use and visually accessible system, ensuring that opportunities and trends can be easily identified. 

Testing and gathering feedback

By working with Ealing and listening to their needs and needs of their stakeholders we have developed a solution that is scalable, transferable and adaptable. Noggin Property gives the flexibility to work with data and geographies at any scale. From an initial testing and deployment within LB Ealing, we expect to offer the app, and aggregate data across any borough or high street, city/town centre boundary. 

“Noggin Property gives the flexibility to work with data and geographies at any scale.”

Throughout the challenge we received feedback from BIDs and local authorities including Horsham, Chichester BID & Isle of Wight. We demonstrated our solution at a Historic Towns & Villages Forum seminar, gathering feedback. We engaged directly with stakeholders in Ealing, West London business groups, LB Ealing, Make It Ealing BID and Enfield Council.

We learnt that although stakeholders have a common interest in helping the high street to thrive, different users have different needs. Some have more time to invest in data collection. Others may simply want reliable up-to-date intelligence and recommendations. For instance, councils and BIDs may be better at curation, whereas stakeholders such as traffic wardens, food inspectors, community interest groups could help with collection.

A common concern raised is that smaller peripheral shopping parades can miss out on the attention and resources given to primary high street locations. We need to highlight which areas are being surveyed less frequently.

What is our solution to this challenge? 

Noggin Property offers a new way to collect and share property data from multiple sources to give a complete overview of High Street properties, and provides a powerful toolkit to help stakeholders develop actionable recommendations that can help reduce vacancy rates and revitalise our High Streets.

Our solution is a web based and mobile enabled toolkit that offers the flexibility to connect data from multiple sources and show real time views of the property landscape to the end user. Data can be collected, updated and shared giving all stakeholders an up to date understanding of the local property situation. A timeline showing historical data can identify and visualise trends and help quantify the impact of interventions both actual and proposed. 

It will help stakeholders such as Local Authorities, Business Improvement Districts and traders associations work effectively with local businesses to drive the regeneration of high streets. Working together, the toolkit will help all stakeholders test and develop new opportunities alongside the local community to repurpose empty properties.

At the heart of this challenge is the requirement for a solution that aggregates a wide range of often disparate data sources of varying accuracy to provide a system that all parties with an interest in regenerating their local high streets, can use. 

“[Noggin Property] will help all stakeholders test and develop new opportunities alongside the local community”

Noggin Property is now capable of aggregating, analysing and sharing this data. However, in order to get a real time view and the most up to date picture of the property landscape, we have also developed a mobile enabled version. This captures data “in the field”, by users taking photos of vacant properties when they appear, which are linked back to the original database. The toolkit works with multiple users too, so an entire city can quickly & easily be covered without duplicating effort. The record of that property can then be updated in the office or at the coffee shop! 

New innovations developed

  • A complete web-based property toolkit, developed with stakeholders, giving a comprehensive view of high street properties 
  • Documenting changes, capture photo records, creating a storyline of premises giving occupancy insight, how fascias change and properties evolve
  • Custom reporting. Visualise High Street changes at any time, with clear annotated maps
  • Distribute reports to share with stakeholders

How does it work?

We acquire business data from multiple sources such as:

  • Contributors; OpenStreetMap; Councils’ Business Rates data; Valuations Office; Land Registry; retailers’ own websites; GLA & local planning tools.
  • We cross-reference this with data from:
  • Food Standards (identifying dark kitchens, restaurants and canteens);
  • Energy (EPC) ratings; Commercial Estate Agents’ and marketplace listings.

None of the data sources can provide all the information we need in one place at reasonable cost, so our efforts are on combining them to aggregate and produce the best results.

We use character & image recognition to help the process of identifying properties, to save time for the desk team when identifying changes in properties. We use pattern recognition to match details between databases. All linkages are made as recommendations; a human curator can override or ignore them

Getting started

  • Noggin Property is based on boundaries: BIDs; local authorities & high streets.
  • We first identify all known businesses within this boundary from available data.
  • We then encourage a photographic documentation of the place
  • This could be Noggin, local rangers, staff and volunteers. This builds the photographic baseline for the entire database, and validates the data we have collected elsewhere.
  • Photographs and data sources are matched
  • This links the photos to the records in the various databases. Ideally, this is a one-off job and may well be helped by any existing work the council have already undertaken (e.g. previous walks). The person/people doing this don’t necessarily need to be the same ones taking the photos!

Dashboard and reporting provides:

  • Provision of an empty property register to focus efforts on
  • Classification of all data by property status: (Trading, Closed, Under Refit, Under Rebuild, Derelict), 
  • Planning use classes
  • Property Location: Breakdown of properties by street/s
  • Historical Records: complete pictorial records of changes to each property
  • Visualisations to show clustering of vacant properties

Scalable, transferable and adaptable.

Before this challenge, Noggin Property was an idea we’d built to beta level with some commercial engagement. We needed this challenge to take a detailed review of what we have been doing and what we needed to do to make the leap from development to commercialisation and reach all the people that can benefit from our product. 

The short turnaround created both excitement and challenge, to support the Ealing development. The momentum this created has been extraordinary. Although it’s meant many late hours of coding, software development and testing, to get everything completed. We’ve thoroughly appreciated seeing our ideas come to fruition so quickly in this development sprint. We now have a service that is truly scalable, transferable and adaptable  across hundreds of towns, cities and high streets.

Thanks to the work with LB Ealing, we’re now able to offer a 14 day trial for any town, city or high street. For more information on the Noggin Property please visit https://www.nogginhub.com/ 

About the author, Toyubur Rahman FIPM, Ethos Partner, Noggin 

Toyubur is a passionate professional and an industry expert in Place Management, urban regeneration, town planning, partnership development, business improvement districts and evening economy; with a proven track record of successfully implementing projects to improve town centres. He is currently practicing Economic Development, Growth and Place in Chichester and was recently appointed to the High Street Task Force as an expert advisor and a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management.