Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Fifth Report


1.Ordnance Survey costs the taxpayer nothing. Indeed, it fulfils its role as the national mapping agency while returning an annual profit to the Treasury. We recognise that the fact that Ordnance Survey is required to fund both its Public Task and commercial work entirely from its own revenues makes it difficult to define precisely where its public duty ends and its competition with private operations begins. (Paragraph 13)
2.Ordnance Survey is the only major public service information holder that does not distinguish in its annual accounts between the costs of and revenues from operations primarily conducted in pursuit of its public and its private tasks. Our predecessor Committee recommended as long ago as 2002 that Ordnance Survey should account separately for its commercial activities. In the interests of transparency, particularly given Ordnance Survey's dominant market position, we recommend that it seek to distinguish as clearly as possible in its annual accounts between the activities it undertakes purely because it remains a quasi-governmental national mapping agency and those it conducts on a firmly commercial basis. We accept that the absence of public funding and the requirement wholly to fund itself place Ordnance Survey in a unique position, which will make a total separation of its activities difficult to achieve. (Paragraph 16)
3.We recognise that Ordnance Survey's need to fund itself almost entirely from income obtained from licensing re-use of the information it holds requires it to protect as stringently as it can in those licences the intellectual property rights in its base data. International experience suggests that any diminution in its funding levels could affect the quality of the information it provides to its customers. That said, Ordnance Survey should work co-operatively with the private sector in the field. (Paragraph 17)
4.The fact that Ordnance Survey has included clauses in licences that effectively require competitors not to compete with it or to complain about it provides a clear example of why both private sector and governmental organisations sometimes perceive it to be acting uncompetitively and unfairly. No such condition should again be included in any licence. (Paragraph 20)
5.We are concerned that public sector organisations charged with carrying out vital public services sometimes find Ordnance Survey's licensing conditions too complex and inflexible. Even the Ministry of Defence, whose predecessor created the national mapping agency two centuries ago, is uncertain about what use it may make of the data it buys from Ordnance Survey. This is a serious indictment of the standards of clarity achieved in the licences Ordnance Survey offers some customers. (Paragraph 21)
6.It is incumbent on Ordnance Survey, particularly given its special status within the geographical information market, to make the licences it offers partners and competitors as simple, cost-effective and appropriate to the user as possible. It is essential that licences contain conditions that fit the needs of individual partners and competitors while yet protecting Ordnance Survey's duty to guard and right to use the intellectual property it holds. (Paragraph 24)
7.Confusion clearly exists over the extent to which the Re-use of Public Service Information regulations apply to Ordnance Survey activities, and this confusion arises from the blurred distinction between its public and private tasks. It is plainly nonsensical that both Ordnance Survey and a private company should have spent 18 months and considerable sums of money on an arbitration process that returned them to square one. We endorse the view of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information that the Government should urgently assess the degree to which the Government's objectives are met by the current regulations. (Paragraph 29)
8.The strict interpretation taken by the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information of the Re-use of Public Service Information regulations highlights a potential flaw affecting the intention behind those regulations. Products to which Ordnance Survey has clearly added value and which it markets commercially should properly be part of its private operation. The base information Ordnance Survey holds as the national mapping agency should, however, be as easily and widely available as possible, allowing for cost recovery. The regulations as currently drafted may be inadequate in ensuring that base information is easily accessible, and we recommend that the Government seek urgently to amend the regulations where deficiencies are identified. (Paragraph 30)
9.We commend the Government for creating a Geographic Information Panel to provide a wide range of advice and views on a national geographic information strategy. We believe that the panel represents a proper range of interests, but recommend that the Government consider whether relevant expertise among the scientific and academic sectors might also be sought. (Paragraph 35)
10.The question of who chairs the Geographic Information Panel is properly a matter for the panel itself. None the less, while the expertise and unique commercial and governmental roles of the Director-General and Chief Executive of Ordnance Survey make the holder of that post an obvious contender for the job, the chairmanship need not and should not be held ex officio by that postholder. (Paragraph 37)
11.We welcome Ordnance Survey's commitment to maintain rural mapping services following cessation of the National Interest Mapping Services Agreement. We note Ordnance Survey's intention to fulfil this task without receiving Government funding as an example of how the agency maintains its public function in spite of the commercial framework within which it works. (Paragraph 38)
12.  We recommend that the Department for Communities and Local Government commission at an appropriate future point a study on the long-term impact of the decision to end the agreement to ensure that the quality of the mapping of rural and other economically unattractive areas is maintained. (Paragraph 39)

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