Business Rates Research Tool (Voila): Project Overview

Purpose:

Our goal in this project was to demonstrate our ability to create value by combining data in existing data set(s) and allowing users to access these data to solve a variety of problems and generate new information that the current system containing the data could not support.

Acquisition of the Valuation Office Agency database of English and Welsh non-domestic rates valuations allowed us to repurpose the data. The Business rates valuations repository is maintained on behalf of the UK government for raising property taxes on businesses in England and Wales. The new proprietary Database – we call VOILA will contain the rating valuations on 1,700,000 English and 100,000 Welsh business properties, It will also contain the appeals history, valuation history, size of the properties and a category of business activity.

 

VOA Agent Mode copy

  • Fig.1 VOA Web Tool Screen Capture: ‘Drill Down’ Interface Illustrating the specific property focus of the tool.

 

The project brief had three stages:

  1. 1)  Create a new database designed in such a way as to support queries of the VOA Dataset that cannot currently be carried out.
  2. 2)  Design an effective query engine that can be employed readily by untrained users to create and answer complex queries.
  3. 3)  Design a website that can support users on a variety of platforms to create, conduct and store the result of complex queries.

Each of these phases involved our team in solving a variety of complex problems across the full range of the Etic Lab skillset.

We intended to create new data and data products retrieved from a proprietary database containing the VOA data. The new database would, with a variety of web-based interaction ‘portals’ provide support for the construction and fulfilment of queries that simply cannot be conducted using the current system provided by the VOA. Voila became the working title for a product designed to serve the needs of agents, usually surveyors practices providing support for customers seeking to mitigate the costs of Business Rates.

 

Target Use Scenarios:

  • Small and Medium-sized enterprises looking to determine the viability of an appeal against their current rating valuation.
  • Businesses trying to determine the economic benefit of moving to another area with a different – lower – rateable value for the business property. The volume and scale such movement is increasing, and as far as we can tell other than contacting a chartered surveying practice, there are no widely available tools to support this kind of research.
  • Economic Development Offices in local government, particularly for supporting their work in attracting inward investment and supporting local business.
  • Property Surveyors engaged in the UK appeals industry, our data suggests that more than 130,000 business rate appeals are lodged in England Wales each year, our data suggest that as many as 95% of these appeals are conducted by paid agents on behalf of the rate paying companies.
  • Property Developers

 

Product Advantages:

There is no access for public or professionals alike to the entire VOA database other than as a complete download, a proprietary engine supporting the services we can offer does not exist insofar as we can tell. The VOA database does not support complex queries of any kind. It is conceivable that extracting the data to support such queries can be carried out by hand from the existing VOA database, but the cost is such that it would not be practicable for most purposes and certainly not the use cases we envisage. It is not possible to search the VOA database by particular localities, type of property, appeals, size of property or rateable value per square metre. It is not possible to derive any metadata from the database. For example, identify the number or nature of appeals in a given locality. Summary data is available from the VOA and ONS but is aggregated into the regions and major cities within the regions. It is not possible to produce summary data for arbitrary areas within or between the cities. Nor do the city summaries that are provided work adequately because the dataset is gathered by Billing Authorities and these do NOT map onto cities or postcodes.

 

Product Features:

An entirely new data architecture has been designed which brings together the appeals data and the ratings valuations data into an integrated whole unlike the case with the existing VOA database. This means that we can support queries about a particular appeal because we have buildings associated with an appeal as an integral part of the database structure, The current VOA system does not provide for queries concerning novel combinations of properties, values, sizes, locations and appeals. For the first time queries requiring data about more than one property at a time can be constructed and answered.

 

Support novel queries:

Supporting searches within user-defined parameters to identify properties meeting their criteria be they geographical, financial, physical or a combination thereof.

  • The system provides access to the data based on a dynamic, interactive model of the location; users can define an area to be queried by providing a list of postcodes or using a  bandbox to define an area of interest. The system will then return to that area, those aspects of properties required by the user. This facility is very much more powerful than the simple single postcode look-up that is the only access tool currently available for the data.
  • The system allows users to compare current rates valuations of properties used for the same purpose and of the same size but in different geographical locations. As the cumulative difference in the rates cost per square meter of commercial premises can run into tens even hundreds of thousands of pounds between different localities this is valuable information. At present, such data is limited to relatively small databases in the hands of the largest valuations surveyors and is expensive to access. We are aware of one major player who claims on their website that they have as many as 130,000 valuation records accumulated over the years. This database will start with an up to date reference set of all 1,800,000 records.
  • This means that the database can support queries such as the mean rateable value per square meter in a city compared with other cities, or within a city by locality or even down to the individual postcode. The system will allow users to vary the size, type and rateable value interactively to create a map of suitable locations based upon the rateable value of the premises.
  • The system supports queries and output at a national, regional, local and micro-local level something not available from the current VOA site.
  • The system can provide aggregated appeals data providing insight into the appeals market (estimated to be in the region of 130000 per year). Currently unavailable.

 

Data Tool Screen Capture-01

  1. Fig. 2 Prototype Data Enquiry Tool Showing the elastic band geographical selection method.

 

Summary

We intended to create new data and data products retrieved from a proprietary database containing the VOA data. The new database would, with a variety of web-based interaction, ‘portals’ provide support for the construction and fulfilment of queries that simply cannot be conducted using the current system provided by the VOA. Voila became the working title for a product designed to serve the needs of agents, usually surveyors practices providing support for customers seeking to mitigate the costs of Business Rates.

The technology for extracting and storing the data has been built into a working prototype of the data architecture required to support the various products is under test. We are looking for partners to help take this research forward. Please contact us for further information.