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Ordnance Survey

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what funding they intend to provide to ensure that the Ordnance Survey has a sustainable future as a result of giving some Ordnance Survey data free to users.

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring a sustainable operating model for the Ordnance Survey so that it can continue to supply high-quality geographic information to Government and other users. Further details will be set out in the response to the consultation, Policy Options for Geographic Information from Ordnance Survey, which will be published by the end of March.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Clearly, the free availability of Ordnance Survey data is to be welcomed. The great concern is that the Prime Minister has already announced this week that the new arrangements for free data are to start on 1 April—next Thursday—with no funding arrangement to replace them. Is our national mapping organisation at risk?

No, my Lords, it certainly is not. I am conscious that this exchange will not be as productive as it might have been had our response to the consultation been published by now. We have made commitments to make sure that there is a sustainable business model. I hope when the noble Earl sees our response that he will accept that we have fulfilled those commitments.

My Lords, I never go anywhere without an Ordnance Survey map, even though I have sat-nav in the car. Some of us have experienced being sent down one-way streets the wrong way by sat-nav. I have looked at the consultation. In the changes anticipated, will I be guaranteed a paper OS map into the foreseeable future?

My Lords, it is well known that the Ordnance Survey is a world-class national mapping organisation and national treasure. It has so far been able to maintain its financial independence by having the freedom to license and to sell for itself the data it has available. With the data being freely distributed, as has just been announced, will it retain the vitality of being a self-financing organisation?

My Lords, the issue is the sustainability of its business model. Obviously, to the extent to which information is going to be made available freely, there will need to be changes to the existing business model. That is what our response to the consultation will show. I certainly agree with the noble and learned Lord that we have a world-class institution here.

Apart from the innate pleasure of answering Questions in your Lordships’ House, sometimes you get the added pleasure of some really interesting information in the briefing. I can say that the OS database has mapped more than 440 million different topographic features, some 544,000 kilometres of motorable road and some 750,000 road names, the three most frequent of which are High Street, Station Road and Church Lane.

My Lords, the new arrangements come in on 1 April and the comments on the consultation are not published until the end of March. That does not give much time for consideration of how they will be implemented and whether changes can be made.

The noble Viscount makes a good point. We have not just waited for the responses to accumulate with a view to dealing with them at the end of the consultation process; they have been addressed while the consultation has been under way. We are keen to make progress on this because it is very clear from the consultation that there is a real appetite to move in the direction that we are proposing.

My Lords, many of us who are keen hill walkers use Ordnance Survey maps all the time. Will my noble friend confirm that, although walkers’ maps may not be the most profitable part of Ordnance Survey’s output, they are absolutely essential and that nothing in the business model will damage our chance of continuing to use these maps?

My Lords, I must not pre-empt our response to the consultation but I believe that what my noble friend says will be the case.

My Lords, who is to blame for the fact that the Government have not yet published the results of the consultation? Is it the people who were consulted or those who were doing the consulting?

My Lords, the consultation started on 23 December; it ran for a 12-week period and finished on 17 March. Until we have gone through the consultation process, we cannot be expected to respond to it. This whole proposal came from the Prime Minister’s assertions about smarter government and making more data freely available to help public services to be more accountable and more transparent. However, we have to conclude the consultation before we can respond to it.

Do the Government consider Ordnance Survey to be primarily a public service or primarily an organisation intended to generate profits?

My Lords, Ordnance Survey’s mission statement has been the subject of debate for some time. Obviously we see it as a key part of public service.

My Lords, what is the cost of the data being given free and will the funding be equal to it, greater or less?

My Lords, that is precisely the information that will be covered in the response, and the noble Lord will understand that it is difficult for me to pre-empt it.

My Lords, the consultation report said that to cover the cost of providing the products for free and maintain the very high standard of those products, an additional government grant of up to £40 million was needed. As this freebie starts next week, the Minister must have an idea, so can he confirm that £40 million will be provided? If not, how much will be?

My Lords, I cannot confirm that figure. I have tried to stress that it is difficult to answer this Question before we have put our response into the public domain. However, I reassert that we have made a commitment to ensure that the business model is sustainable, and obviously that will mean some form of funding to support the fact that some of the income streams will not be there in the future.

My Lords, if I am right in recalling that Ordnance Survey, like lighthouses and lifeboats, is run on an all-Ireland basis, what are the implications of these developments for the Irish authorities?

My Lords, these proposals relate just to Scotland, Wales and England. Ordnance Survey covers Great Britain and there are separate arrangements for Northern Ireland.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us why the consultation came out so late and why the funding finishes before any other procedure can be put in place?

My Lords, we are proposing to start the new arrangements on 1 April and, whatever the change to the funding arrangements, it is obviously important that those arrangements are in place from that date. It seems to me that the consultation flowed naturally from government announcements about making data more freely available in relation not only to Ordnance Survey but to a whole range of other things, such as health, transport and the Met Office. This was simply a development of government policy. Sometimes we are criticised for not consulting enough or over a sufficient period. However, we have done so on this occasion.

My Lords, does this apply also to the Hydrographic Office and the issuing of nautical charts for our navies and seamen around the British coast?

My Lords, I may need to write to the noble Lord to give him more detail on that. If those charts are produced by Ordnance Survey, the changes we will make will fall within the ambit of the review.

Has my noble friend noticed the apparent enthusiasm on the Benches opposite for an extension of public expenditure? Will he join me in hoping that that extension of public expenditure and the enthusiasm for it becomes infectious?

My Lords, I must declare an interest as a former Minister for Ordnance Survey. Can the Minister give me any other recent example where a government response to consultation had not been published before an activity was initiated?

My Lords, I explained that we are going to publish our response in the next few days—by the end of March—and the actions proposed will follow that, not precede it.

My Lords, I understood the Minister to say that the consultation period ended on 17 March. On 22 March, the Prime Minister announced that the new funding arrangements were to start on 1 April. The results of the consultation document have not yet been published, and Ordnance Survey, which is expected to run a trading fund, has no idea where next week’s funding is to come from. Is that the situation?