Gavin Chait is an "economist, engineer, data scientist and author" who created a website called Pikhaya where UK entrepreneurs can get lists of vacant commercial properties, their advertised rents, and the history of the businesses that had previously been located in those spaces — whether they thrived, grew and moved on, or went bust (maybe because they had a terrible location).
Obviously, this has use beyond entrepreneurs: as Chait points out, it's a great tool for landlords to compare how their properties are performing and it's an invaluable tool for local councils and planners who want to understand how their towns and cities are doing.
In theory, it should be pretty straightforward to get all these statistics and build a site like Pikhaya, because local governments have most of it, though it's kept in different silos. Chait planned on filing the requisite public-records requests, then he'd import, analyse and republish the data.
That's where things get ugly. The English and Welsh local governments consistently and persistently rejected his requests, claiming that turning over this data would be a boon to thieves, vandals, squatters and terrorists (!). Through years of wrangling, appealing, and suing, Chait got an up-close look at how incoherent and backwards the Freedom of Information process is, how reflexively secretive local governments are, and how credulous the judges and arbitrators who are supposed to review rejected public records requests are.
The thing is that there is no evidence that disclosing this information poses any public safety risk (there's actually plenty of evidence to the contrary). But time and again, Chait squared off against a public official or law enforcement officer whose argument went, "I am an expert in this domain, and in my expert opinion, this information should be kept secret." That was it: no evidence, case studies, or statistics. Just pure argument by authority: I'm an expert, I say so, we're done.
What's worse, the judges and arbitrators involved swallowed this bullshit.
After years of fighting, Chait has nearly managed to get the data — mostly. All but 18 authorities out of the total 348 have published their commercial vacancy rates — 95%!
But the remaining 5% are portraits in intransigence, and they include the City of London, Westminster and Sheffield.
Chait is doing important work that has enormous public value, and his tirelessness and dedication are an inspiration. He's discovered millions of square meters of languishing, vacant commercial space, unrented for decades, sitting fallow in the heart of the most expensive regions in the continent. It's a grotesque policy and market failure, and it is clear that the local councils are more concerned with covering up the problem than documenting it, which might spur them to do something about it.
The attitude of one of the wealthiest and supposedly best-equipped local authorities is an almost complete contempt for research and the mechanism of using data and evidence to evaluate social and economic problems.
It is abundantly clear that this contempt translates into a woeful and inadequate institutional capacity to understand how data is already used by others and how to use data themselves to compile research and evidence to tackle the very thing they claim to be preventing: terrorism.
Based on the data from reporting authorities, there are numerous London sub-regions each containing over 200,000 square meters of vacant commercial premises, much of which has been in that condition for more than a decade.
More generally, with over 4.5 million square meters of vacant commercial properties across London, this is hardly some invisible national secret, the knowledge of which can be controlled by any local authority.
Across the country? Ten times that. Almost 46 million vacant square meters of property, and areas where the median void duration is almost 30 years.
Meet the Man Who Filed 1,400 FOI Requests to Prove Data Acquisition Isn't Terrorism [Gavin Chait/GJIN]