Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 247 - 259)




  247. Can I welcome you to the Committee and can I ask you to identify yourself and your team for the record please.
  (Ms Keeble) Yes, I am Sally Keeble. I am Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I have with me Ken Swan, who is from the Finance and Sponsorship Division and Peter Capell from the Planning and Land Use Statistics Division.

  248. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight to questions?

  (Ms Keeble) I would like to say something.

  249. By all means.
  (Ms Keeble) I am very pleased that the Sub-Committee has decided to undertake this investigation into the work of Ordnance Survey. I took on ministerial responsibility for it last summer, along with my separate departmental responsibility. Ordnance Survey is a non-ministerial government department. It is an executive agency and operates, as you know, as a trading fund. As the Minister for Ordnance Survey, I have particular responsibilities for its strategic direction, for approving its business plans and to set the agency key targets each year. I have to say, I have been extremely impressed by the work of Ordnance Survey. The advances that are being made with digitised geographic and mapping information are very striking in their speed and quality. During the meetings that I have had with the Chief Executive, presentations I have been to and during short visits to Southampton, I have been very impressed with the energy and the sense of direction that is going into Ordnance Survey's programme of change on both a services and a staffing level. They are very actively responding to the needs of the geographic information marketplace, and also producing a climate of change within the organisation which all staff are being encouraged to contribute to, and some are clearly very supportive of as well. They have made very significant progress over the last two to three years and I am very keen to ensure that that development continues. You will have heard that Ordnance Survey data makes a huge contribution to the UK economy and we need to make sure that that contribution grows and continues. However, perhaps of more concern to me is the fact that Ordnance Survey has a major role to play in the development of public service delivery and that has very much informed my decision-making. You will be aware that I announced to the House on the 19th December that as a consequence of the report from stage one of the Quinquennial Review of OS, I was minded to accept the recommendation that the agency should move to a wholly government-owned plc. It was considered that such a status would provide the flexibilities and business freedoms to enable OS to continue to develop and respond quickly and effectively to the changing demands of a rapidly evolving industry and marketplace, and also, therefore, to meet the needs of public service providers. The Department and OS have now embarked on stage two of the Review that is seeking to produce a thorough assessment of the costs and benefits that the most appropriate government-owned plc model would have over the current trading fund status. We have appointed consultants to undertake the work. They will also look at the risks of a government-owned plc transition and what might happen should OS remain as a trading fund. I should say that stage two is not reopening the issues dealt with within stage one, but the work is focusing on the government-owned plc and trading fund comparison. I am looking for a robust and thorough analysis to inform the decision. I expect to receive the stage two report in May and to be able to announce a decision on the future structure before the House rises for the summer recess. We need to be very positive about the role that OS data can play in both co-ordinating services across government and developing citizen-based services. There are many opportunities, and I feel that we have only at present scratched the surface. At present, there are some departments and other government bodies that have not yet gained access to OS data and I am sure that the development of the pan-government agreement will help to develop those opportunities. I should also say that I think that the steps that OS have taken since 1999 to shift away from the development of more specialised products within the marketplace has also been very important. Its stated policy is to work with partners and it is their partners who have the expertise and experience to develop applications for OS data to meet particular market needs. OS will be facing increasing competitive challenges in the future and I am very keen that it is positioned to meet those challenges. It is very important, I believe, that OS remains with the public sector arena, but it does need to be able to maximise its investment arrangements within the private sector and be able to attract and retain the skills required to manage in a competitive environment. So I am very optimistic about the future of OS and particularly its ability to play a very important role in the development of public services right across government.

  250. Can I thank you very much for that statement. Can I also apologise to you that I shall have to leave at about ten to twelve for a hospital appointment, at which point Mrs Dunwoody will take over in the Chair. Can I start by pressing you about this question of the National Interest Mapping Service and the core activities. You will be aware of the Landranger maps, the 1:50,000 maps. Do you see that as part of the core activity of Ordnance Survey, producing those maps?
  (Ms Keeble) Well, the core activity is the national mapping and these maps which are produced I would say are part of the core activity because they provide a range of service which is really unmatched elsewhere, so yes, I would say it would be.

  251. Do they make a profit?
  (Ms Keeble) Not across the range. One of the functions that OS has to do is it has to map the whole of the country and it cannot just cherry-pick the bits which are particularly profitable and produce those maps, so the range of them does not, although one or two particular maps within the range might.

  252. Should they make a profit?
  (Ms Keeble) No, I do not think they should. Equally, they should not make a loss. They have been subsidised obviously in the past and I think some of them do still make a loss, and I think a figure of 40 per cent has been given to you.

  253. How should they cover those costs then? Should the taxpayer be covering the costs? (Ms Keeble) I think it is fair to provide some support for that particular range of activities because it is a basic service that applies right across the whole of the country.

  254. So that deals with the 1:50,000. What about the 1:25,000, the Explorer maps—are they something that ought to be available right across the country?
  (Ms Keeble) Yes, I think they should.

  255. Should they make a profit?
  (Ms Keeble) Well, both of those products should, as far as possible, be self-financing so that they are not making a great profit, no.

  256. So they should just be covering their costs, but they are part of the core activity of the Ordnance Survey?
  (Ms Keeble) I would say they are, yes.

  257. What about the Landplan range as we are going down or going up in detail—where should that come in?
  (Ms Keeble) Well, in that it is an application, I would expect that to be one of the core activities to provide a range of mapping products of the more conventional type that should not make a profit, but should provide a public service.

  258. So if you were dealing with a planning issue, you should be able to get hold of part of the Landplan map at a very reasonable cost in order to argue at a public inquiry that you want something to happen or you do not want something to happen?
  (Ms Keeble) Well, I think that would depend on what you are getting and what use you are making of it.

  259. So if you are the developer who is going to make a nice profit, you should pay for it, but if you are the person next door who wants to protect your view, you should not pay for it?
  (Ms Keeble) I would not necessarily say that. Some people might be able to get their maps through different agency agreements or indeed rather than go out and buy a map, you can get some maps off the Internet.

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