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

Memorandum by Ordnance Survey (PGP 56)


  Ordnance Survey is the national mapping agency of Great Britain and a Government Department. It carries out the official, definitive, survey and mapping of the country and is a world leader in digital geographical information. The Director General is the official adviser to government on geographical information. Ordnance Survey became an Executive Agency in 1990 and a Trading Fund on 1 April 1999.

  We aim to satisfy the need for accurate, readily-available, mapping and geospatial information for the whole of Great Britain in the most effective and efficient way.

  More information about our work is available on our web site at


  Ordnance Survey has been in the forefront of recent efforts to modernise government, and we are naturally supportive of moves to improve the inclusiveness and effectiveness of planning. The Green paper proposes a number of positive changes but it is not clear that, in aggregate, they will amount to the fundamental change that is sought. We believe the opportunity exists to go further than the Green Paper envisages in transforming planning to meet the needs of citizens. Our observations centre on the respective roles of electronic government and geographical information in planning. We also comment on the contribution of the National Land Use Database to the urban renaissance.


  The Green Paper states (at 5.12) that ". . . electronic technology has a huge potential to make the planning system more transparent and accessible, more responsive and more efficient", yet devotes just three paragraphs to the subject. These focus on the role that the Planning Portal will play in making planning applications and appeals available on-line. Nothing is said about the potential contribution of e-communications to increasing community participation in the development of higher-level plans.

  In our view the Green Paper underplays the contribution that the Planning Portal and other e-initiatives can make to transforming planning processes. To the extent that the role of the internet is acknowledged it is in terms of automating existing processes rather than fundamentally rethinking them.

  It may be that the authors of the Green Paper were deterred from a more positive approach to e-business by the diversity among local planning authorities in terms of their preparedness for electronic communication. While this does indeed limit the extent of change that can be introduced simultaneously across the country, it should not be a reason for holding back positive developments that can be achieved incrementally. For as long as planning remains in the hands of local planning authorities, variations in the speed of adoption of new technology are to be expected and should be accommodated wherever possible. Meanwhile web technology provides the means by which software tools can be made available to all, to be taken up when users are ready.

  Though neither planning authorities nor citizens are uniformly ready, and access to the internet is far from universal, now is surely the time to grasp the nettle and plan for an e-planning future.


  It goes without saying that planning is a geographically-based activity, so its effectiveness naturally depends upon the ready availability of high-quality geographical information. Great Britain is fortunate in having up-to-date and accurate large scale mapping for the whole country and, in Ordnance Survey, an organisation able to adapt to the demands of new technology.

  Visualisation plays a major part in planning decisions, both at the broad planning and development control levels. Maps have always been at the heart of local plans and county structure plans, but the ability to display geographical information on the world-wide web could transform local community involvement in the process by allowing groups and individuals easy access to plans as they develop, together with a host of relevant background and statistical information in a form that is easy to digest. At the level of individual development proposals, geographical information provides the means not only to identify locations (as now) but also to assess both visual and environmental impact.

  Consistent technical standards are fundamental to the successful use of geographical information, in planning as elsewhere. OS MasterMap, Ordnance Survey's new large-scale database, provides just such a standard. It offers the ability to link together information about real objects such as buildings, building plots, fields and the like, from multiple sources, via unique TOgraphical IDentifiers or TOIDS. This will facilitate the combining of information from different systems owned by different stakeholders, thus helping to make the planning system more open and transparent.

  Ordnance Survey has a particular interest in the use of digital geographical information in planning, because it will facilitate the collection of "pre-build" data for inclusion in OS MasterMap as a distinct data layer. We know that pre-build information is useful to a wide range of users and we aim to provide more in the future.

  A new pan-government agreement, that will make Ordnance Survey data available right across central government, is nearing the signing stage. By improving accessibility and controlling costs, it has the potential to bring together the functions of government in the service of the citizen as never before.


  An excellent example of the use of geographical information as an aid to planning is the creation of the National Land Use Database (NLUD). Established under the direction of John Prescott as Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, NLUD has built a database of previously developed land that is now a national resource for the identification of brownfield sites. This has been achieved through partnership among DTLR, English Partnerships, IDeA and Ordnance Survey and serves as an example of what can be achieved by co-operation and data sharing among agencies.

Neil Sutherland

Government Policy Adviser

March 2002

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