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

Supplementary memorandum by Christopher Roper, Landmark Information Group (OS 01(a))


  At the very end of the evidence given by myself and Michael Nicholson, we were asked about the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG). This is a subject on which we hold very different views. This is understandable as Michael heads the company, Intelligent Addressing that has taken on the task of creating the NLPG, whereas I have believed and argued for three years that the concept was fatally flawed.

  The idea for an NLPG goes back at least to the 1980s, when Ordnance Survey was a long way from completing its digital large-scale map of the United Kingdom, when HM Land Registry (HMLR) was just thinking about a digital registry and when few local authorities had substantial holdings of digital mapping. At about the same time, Royal Mail was successfully promoting the Postcode Address File (another gazetteer) as a useful set of geographical identifiers.

  The first big idea was to establish a standard (BS7666) that would allow all these bodies to hold and exchange spatial information in the same way. Since Local Authorities are charged with naming streets, allocating numbers and passing new address information to the Post Office, it seemed logical that they should also produce local gazetteers that could be aggregated into a national gazetteer.

  The production of the standard was driven by local government interest. Tony Black who had been seconded to the Local Government Management Board from Ordnance Survey, was a major influence in shepherding the BS7666 through many layers of consultation, to adoption. The standard came in four parts.

    —  Specification for a Street Gazetteer (1993).

    —  Specification for a Land and Property Gazetteer (1994).

    —  Specification for addresses (1994).

    —  Specification of a data set for recording public rights of way (1996).

  We are interested here only in the first three. So much work and energy, by so many different bodies, went into agreeing the Standard that problems of actually implementing it were left to one side. Indeed, this is a problem with any standard that seeks to meet a number of potentially conflicting needs. It is either based towards the need of one set of potential users, or is so loose as to preclude consistent implementation across the country.

  The work of assembling a National Street Gazetteer (NSG) that conformed to the standard did not begin until 1997 and no independent expert believes it is complete, accurate or robust. The NSG is no better than the data that was supplied by individual authorities. Worse still, legal tangles over intellectual property and the powers of local authorities to publish such information means that access to the NSG, which is held by Ordnance Survey on behalf of the Local Government Information House (a limited company controlled by the Improvement and Development Agency for local government), is tightly restricted and it is therefore of limited use to the community at large. It is also impossible to apply any independent check on its quality.

  Although data sets have been created that claim BS7666 compliance, this merely refers to the format of file and field structures. The standard refers to structure and not to content; so it doesn't say anything about the quality of data they contain, completeness, accuracy or consistency. >From around the country, practitioners are experiencing serious difficulties in producing Land and Property Gazetteers that both conform to the standard and are fit for purpose.

  Nevertheless, the concept of the BS7666-compliant NLPG is absolutely central to the concept of the National Land Information Service (NLIS), which was the subject of a competitive tender in 1999 to supply "an integrated search system to support the conveyancing process". The invitation to tender said that "The NLPG, developed by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) will be made available as the means of access to local and central government spatially related information". According to a notice in the Official Journal of the European Communities in September 1999, "The cornerstone of (NLIS) will be a NLPG containing a unique identifier, for each property or land parcel in the country." More than a year after the launch of the NLIS service (February 2001), the NLPG is still not being used for the purpose for which it was designed.

  Until Dr Geoffrey Robinson arrived as Director General of Ordnance Survey in October 1998, it had been assumed that Ordnance Survey would produce the first cut NLPG on a similar basis to the exercise that had produced the NSG, through a contract between Ordnance Survey and LGIH. Indeed, Tony Black, a senior director of Ordnance Survey, had committed the Agency to producing the NLPG and was absolutely furious when Geoff Robinson questioned both the specification and Ordnance Survey's ability to deliver it.

  Instead, he distanced Ordnance Survey from this process, and left the NLIS implementation team with a serious problem. This was a serious embarrassment for government as a bid for Invest to Save funds had already been approved for creating the National Land Information Service, and of the £3 million involved, OS had been allocated £500,000 to undertake the work on the NLPG. Ordnance Survey never published its reasons for withdrawing from the process, but early in 1999, it became clear that the NLIS conveyancing support project would be taken forward by a partnership between IDeA and HMLR, without OS.

  The joint venture between LGIH and Property Intelligence plc to produce the NLPG was announced on 16 July. Intelligent Addressing is simply a subsidiary of Property Intelligence set up for this specific project. There was no public procurement process and the details of the agreement remain obscure, though both parties insist that they are acting together for the public good. First details of what this partnership would deliver were contained in a set of Briefing Notes sent to Local Authorities in the Autumn of 1999. At that time, we were promised a complete NLPG within three years.

  The first steps of the process outlined in the Briefing Notes is to assist Local Authorities in sorting out their address-based data into BS7666-compliant form, attaching a Unique Property Reference Number to each record. This work will be undertaken by Intelligent Addressing, "a team of experts gathered from (Property Intelligence) and elsewhere specifically to co-ordinate work on address management and property gazetteers and help to create and maintain the NLPG."

  Reading the Briefing Notes it is extremely hard to understand what all the fuss is about. It all seems extremely sensible and workable, though the promised output seems to be more like a National Address Gazetteer than the NLPG. However, there are two central questions, to which it is currently difficult to get clear answers: Why did its creation create such serious difficulties between Ordnance Survey and IDeA that they led Dr Robinson to resign in October 1999; and (directly or indirectly) to the dismissal of a senior director of Ordnance Survey, Tony Black.

  It is also worth noting that Ordnance Survey was engaged in its own process of indexation. In the NLPG Briefing document, this is described as OS embarking "on a process which will result in the creation of a set of closed polygons for each geographical object on it Land-Line series maps. It is intended that these polygons will be cross-referenced to the NLPG. As the NLPG is created, OS will take a feed of change intelligence to assist in the process of keeping the map base up to date and accurate". This was written prior to the launch of OS Mastermap.

  Is this simply a battle to see who assigns Unique Reference Numbers (URN) to addressable objects on the ground or on the map? There could be important issues of control, intellectual property rights and work flow wrapped up in the assignment of URN. I have a rather simple view expressed in the following pair of alternatives.

  Either: OS assigns a URN to features (spatial objects) that appear on the OS map, and the Local Authority links its gazetteer of named and addressable objects to these URNs;

  Or: The Local Authority assigns a URN to each of the named and addressable objects appearing in its gazetteer and (through some as yet unexplained process) tells the world where they are on the OS map (point or polygon co-ordinates).

  Neither system is perfect, and both would require close co-operation between the parties, but it seems to us that this is not a technical issue, but a commonsense issue. The problem with leaving the task to local authorities, each with its own ideas about how to go about the task, what resources to apply and what priority to assign it, is that we are most unlikely to end up with a fit-for-purpose national gazetteer that is consistent, current or complete.

  If we want a single geo-referencing system, but recognise that there will be many gazetteers, held by different authorities for different purposes, then we want it tied to what is probably the best large scale digital map base in the world, Ordnance Survey's Master Map.

  This implies that there should be one set of URNs assigned, initially, by Ordnance Survey. As new buildings appear or buildings are demolished or re-structured, Local Authorities can collaborate with OS to flag URNs as changed or obsolete and to allocate new URNs.

  Despite frequent, optimistic assertions to contrary, most informed outsiders believe the effort launched by Local Government Information House (LGIH) and Intelligent Addressing (IA) almost three years ago (July 1999) has not yielded a reliable or consistent National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG).

  To understand why I believe it cannot succeed, one needs to understand the process that was going to be used to build it. The NLPG depended on aggregating Local Land and Property Gazetteers (LLPG) that were to be constructed and maintained by those local authorities (District Councils and Unitary Authorities) that have the responsibility for naming streets, allocating house numbers and registering house names.

  Each property was to be assigned a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). The UPRN would be the key to maintaining consistent records across government and to supporting the National Land Information Service (NLIS).

  So why hasn't it worked? The first reason is that most local authorities have still not signed up to deliver and maintain an LLPG to those charged with compiling the NLPG. In the absence of local co-operation, the compilers have used already available data from Ordnance Survey (Addresspoint), the Valuation Office Agency and Consignia (the Postcode Address File). However, since none of these is complete, there is no way of identifying errors and omissions.

  However, even if every local authority had agreed to compile an LLPG, the resulting NLPG would have failed to meet the requirements of its compilers. This is because, we are never going to have a consistent address gazetteer unless we first have a consistently maintained National Street Gazetteer. At present, although Local Authorities are empowered to name streets, you find inconsistent spellings in different parts of each council, on different map bases maintained by Ordnance Survey and even on the street name plates themselves.

  Over the past two decades, some evangelists have claimed that the problem of consistency in these matters could be achieved through the application of a standard (BS7666). All kinds of data (including the NLPG) claim BS7666 compliance, but it is gradually dawning that this standard can be applied in a variety of different ways, and says nothing about the consistency, currency or completeness of the dataset. All it guarantees is the structure of each record.

  So what is to be done? For over a year now, Ordnance Survey has been working with HM Land Registry, the compilers of the NLPG (IA & LGIH) and Consignia, to rescue and deliver a fit-for-purpose NLPG. They were effectively ordered to do so by ministers. Their deliberations have been shielded from public view, but we are constantly told to expect an announcement shortly.

  For a variety of reasons, although all the participants were committed to find a way forward, their deliberations have failed to produce a positive outcome. The NLPG compilers are loath to admit failure. They want the solution to build on their efforts. Equally firmly, Consignia and Ordnance Survey are unwilling to surrender control over the specification and maintenance of their data.

  There is, however, a commonsense solution that has been urged by outsiders ever since the NLPG project was first mooted. This does involve throwing away the NLPG as it stands.

  The only dataset that could be verifiably complete, current and consistent is Ordnance Survey large-scale mapping. This can be compared against what is on the ground at any point in time. It never will be 100 per cent complete or current, and it certainly isn't at present, but it is the definitive record of the built environment. It is used by HM Land Registry to record property boundaries and titles. The word definitive is essential to what follows.

    "Definitive: Having the function of finally deciding; determinative, final." (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

  In other words, in the absence of an accepted correction from the appropriate naming authority, the Ordnance Survey map should be regarded as the primary source of street names. As it happens, Ordnance Survey hasn't taken this role particularly seriously and streets may be spelled in one way in one OS data base and in another way in another OS data base. Nevertheless, OS remains the only logical repository at present for a definitive National Street Gazetteer.

  Once we have an agreed National Street Gazetteer (NSG), then it is a comparatively easy task to link each and every building in the country to a named (or numbered) segment of street or road. Once again, Ordnance Survey is the only logical repository of the definitive National Buildings Data Set (NBDS). Whether Ordnance Survey continues as a Trading Fund, becomes a Government Owned PLC, or is fully privatised, the national interest demands that these two definitive datasets are created and maintained.

  Furthermore, it is essential that no private or public entity is allowed to extract a monopoly rent from this data. The data needs effectively to be in the public domain, with feedback mechanisms in place to maintain its currency, completeness and correctness. Once this is done, many of the disputes and technical arguments that have paralysed the production of an NLPG for almost a decade will disappear.

  Local Authorities will feed corrections into the definitive data sets (NSG & NBDS); everyone else will regard these data sets as definitive, and proceed accordingly. Local Authorities can build LLPGs or not, BS7666 compliant or not, as the elected representatives see fit; Consignia can continue to use Postal Towns as a defining element of the postal address; Ordnance Survey will stop trying to fit Addresspoint to the Postcode Address File.

  Any address, held by local or central government, by the private sector (eg utilities), or by Consignia, can be matched to a unique building listed in the definitive data sets. This will, over time, lead to a more consistent management of address-based data across the public and the private sectors. It provides a structure that can be implemented immediately (delivered within 12 months) and steadily improved over time.

What are the obstacles to this happening?

    1.  There has to be an agreement that the NLPG hasn't met and cannot meet its stated objectives in its present form. Until there is high-level agreement on that point, resources will continue to be devoted to shoring up the existing edifice, hoping against hope that all will be well. Qualified independent assessors need to assist in this process.

    2.  There has to be agreement that none of the contending parties should be allowed to extract a monopoly rent from this basic building block of a national geospatial infrastructure. At least three public sector bodies (OS, IDeA, Consignia) currently contend with one another for exclusive intellectual property rights in this arena.

    3.  It has to be agreed that the definitive national data sets have to be built top down, with the naming authorities simply verifying and proposing corrections to the data. Streets and buildings are constantly being added and deleted as the built environment evolves. Better tools are needed to enable those involved to keep pace with the changes.

  The purpose of the national definitive data sets is to provide an atomic set of entities that will allow the unambiguous cross referencing of data across both the public and the private sector. This is an urgent task that is now recognised in government and in the industry. It is a source of deep frustration that those most centrally concerned are marching down a road that leads nowhere, and that their discussions are shrouded in secrecy. It is a national scandal.

Supplementary memorandum by Christopher Roper, Landmark Information Group (OS 01 (b))


  The Second Phase of the Ordnance Survey's Quinquennial Review has been asked to consider if Ordnance Survey should remain a Trading Fund or become a Government Owned PLC. It is impossible for anyone to answer this question until we establish exactly what we (Parliament, Ministers and Taxpayers) expect from Ordnance Survey.

  The recent enquiry into Ordnance Survey, by the Urban Affairs Sub-committee of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, highlighted a number of concerns: an appropriate form of regulation for Ordnance Survey; its role as an effective monopoly in some segments of the market; and the prices it charged for its products.

  My own belief, based on many years of working with Ordnance Survey, is that there is little or no reason for it to continue as a single organisation. Ordnance Survey currently does a number of different things, some of which could be done equally well by the private sector, some of which need to be done in the national interest free from commercial pressures. These different functions were not examined by the Quinquennial Review. Ordnance Survey:

A.   Collects of authoritative survey data covering the whole country;

  This really does need to be done once and once only. It could be done by private sector contractors, but there is an absolute need for a body that guarantees the quality of that data in the national interest. It may not be sensible to have the same body both collecting the data and assuring its quality. Despite Ordnance Survey's reputation for quality, not all of its output has been fit for purpose in recent years.

B.   Provides large-scale digital map data;

  Large-scale mapping, until recently Land-line and in future Mastermap, has provided OS with its principal source of revenue. It is widely used by engineers, architects and surveyors, but the national institutions that absolutely require it are HM Land Registry (HMLR) and Registers of Scotland (RoS). A good case could be made for handing over the maintenance of this data to these institutions and then providing the data at marginal cost to all other users.

C.   Publishes small/medium scale maps;

  There is no good reason, other than custom and practice, why this is done by the public sector. Certainly the production of the maps could and should be contracted out to private printers. The Director General argues that keeping an available stock of all sheets for the emergency services is a reason for OS continuing to produce these maps which are of high quality and popular with consumers, but there are a wide variety of ways in which supply could be guaranteed. The real point is that there is no real connection with the production of these maps, a cartographic and printing task, and the maintenance of the large-scale data.

D.   Provides the government with advice on mapping; and

  There is a real need for this, but pressure on Ordnance Survey to maximise profits from its captive customers in the public sector has meant that its advice has not always been objective. The suspicion that it was self-serving led directly to the resignation of the last Director General. It seems extraordinary that the Quinquennial Review didn't enquire into the circumstances that led to Dr Geoffrey Robinson's abrupt resignation after just one year in the job. Witness after witness at the Parliamentary enquiry argued for a Geographical Commission.

E.   Acts as Custodian of Definitive National Spatial Datasets

  Ordnance Survey's role in this area should be central to its mission, but it has never been clear. However, Ordnance Survey is the natural custodian of a definitive National Street Gazetteer; a National Buildings Dataset; and a set of administrative boundaries. These are all vitally needed for the purposes of joined-up government and would not cost vast amounts of money to maintain. Their maintenance could be funded by the Office of National Statistics.

  It would be quite possible to conceive of a National Mapping Agency, with fewer than 100 employees, that performed functions D & E above and provided quality assurance for function A. It should be completely free of any commercial role and be funded centrally. There is no good reason, except for sentiment and tradition for keeping the publication of small scale maps (function C) in the public sector. This should be open to competition as it is in France where small scale maps published by the Institute Geographique National compete with maps from Michelin and other specialised publishers. It is important to maintain a central archive or large-scale digital mapping (function B), but it would make much more sense to shift control of this process into HMLR and RoS, institutions that, unlike Ordnance Survey, actually use the data as a central part of their work. This database maintenance could be funded from the cash flow of property registration and conveyancing.

  Everything else that Ordnance Survey currently does could be privatised and open to competitive market forces.


  There is a clear contradiction between Ordnance Survey's role as a dominant commercial producer of geographical information and its other roles as advisor to government and guarantor of the quality and fitness for purpose of its information. If the government wants to push the organisation to be more commercial, it becomes doubly important to safeguard the national interest. Some of the issues are quite arcane and technical, which probably explains the failure of the Quinquennial Review (Phase 1) to probe Ordnance Survey's role in any depth. The separation of roles described above would achieve this.

  Ordnance Survey's reason for being has been dominated in recent years but its internal drive to survive as a single institution: preserving a bloated headcount, resisting customer demands for change; and focused on a historical mission that was becoming irrelevant to the needs of government and society in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Simply opening the door to market forces, without considering the needs of government or society, is not helpful. Ordnance Survey, left to its own devices, will not take these needs into account if they conflict with what it identifies (rightly or wrongly) as commercial imperatives.

  Identifying Ordnance Survey's core mission in terms of the public interest, instead of equating it with the production of particular products, would produce a slimmed down institution, better qualified technically to assure quality and act as the custodian of definitive national spatial datasets.

  Ordnance Survey is the 800-pound gorilla in the Geographical Information marketplace. This market has been historically stunted by Ordnance Survey's desire to control access to data in order to preserve its dominant role in its core markets. If specialised information service providers are to flourish in this arena, Ordnance Survey needs to be broken up. There is little doubt that the use of large-scale digital mapping across government and across the private sector at present is sub-optimal thanks to constraints imposed by Ordnance Survey as it seeks to meet Treasury-imposed revenue targets.

  At the very least, the arguments for breaking up Ordnance Survey, should be examined.

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