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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. Perhaps this is a question to Mr Roper again. The Quinquennial Review rejected the possibility of a merger with Her Majesty's Land Registry. You yourselves have highlighted that the division of labour and responsibility between Ordnance Survey, Her Majesty's Land Registry and the Office of National Statistics may not work as well as it should. Do you think that the Quinquennial Review adequately addressed these concerns?
  (Mr Roper) I do not and that is why I raised that I hoped there would be something about that. I think the large-scale mapping, I see no possible reason for having two sets of large-scale mapping and until we know exactly how HMLR proposes to produce its indexed map, I think there is a danger of getting divergent maps. I would certainly prefer to see in the large-scale mapping area a clearer and closer relationship between HMLR and Ordnance Survey and I would like the quinquennial reviews of both organisations to have considered that in more detail.

  221. Would you like to see a merger between the two?
  (Mr Roper) Not between the two organisations because quite clearly HMLR and Ordnance Survey have many functions other than large-scale mapping in the area of small-scale and paper maps and it would make no sense for those to be merged, but in this one area of large-scale mapping I think there are real problems in keeping them apart.

  222. Mr Nicholson, what are your views on the relationship between Ordnance Survey and Her Majesty's Land Registry?
  (Mr Nicholson) This is something we proposed to the Downing Street policy think-tank about ten or twelve years ago, that the two organisations should be merged, and we were given a dusty answer in the sense that we were told that the Government was not in the mood to be merging departments. The logic that we saw then was that both organisations share skills and could share technology. We also saw land registry as a strong generator of what I think in the public sector is called "surplus", and—


  223. That sounds nicer than "profit", does it not?
  (Mr Nicholson)—and Ordnance Survey was essentially looking to make some big investments needing funding which still remains the case, So I think that there are skills and technology arguments in favour of it and I think there may be financial arguments in favour of it too. I think if you are looking for joined-up government, the two areas that you are looking at in terms of land ownership and the actual topographic base are critically linked together, so I think there are several good reasons. However, I do not feel as strongly about it now as I did ten years ago because I think things have moved on.

Mr Cummings

  224. The Committee have heard from many witnesses that the cost of Ordnance Survey data is a problem. Is this something that you have concerns over?
  (Mr Roper) We do not believe that the cost or the price is inappropriate for when it is being used for engineering uses. If you are trying to use it as a kind of public billboard for people to get free information on the web, then quite clearly the price becomes a consideration and it is too expensive for that purpose.

  225. So are you saying that it has not been successful in simplifying its copyright charging arrangements?

  (Mr Roper) No, I think there is an inescapable problem. If you want to extract an economic price from professional engineering users in the commercial sector, it is impossible to give that data away from another window because, given modern technology, the professionals are perfectly capable of going to the free window rather than the pay-for window.

  226. So the copyright charges are not being reduced?
  (Mr Roper) I do not think halving the price would double the demand. I think it is a very complicated issue, this, about how you charge for Ordnance Survey mapping, and I do not think it was given adequate attention by the Quinquennial Review. Also I do see a contradiction in the pressures that have been brought upon Ordnance Survey from different parts of government, from the Treasury to deliver an improving economic return, and from other parts of government to deliver free information services.

  227. Then why do you agree with Ordnance Survey's decision not to value its national topographic database?
  (Mr Roper) Because I think that would just place an additional pressure on it to increase its prices. We deal with our own data, which is very valuable, in exactly the same way and we write off the cost in the year in which it is undertaken. You can ask three accountants and they will all give you different opinions on this. There is not a right answer and a wrong answer about it.

  228. So are you giving the Committee the right answer?
  (Mr Roper) No, but I am telling you that there is not a correct answer. I can understand as we use exactly the same method as Ordnance Survey uses as approved by our auditors and we do that because we think it is prudent, conservative accounting and we are saying, "Okay, we will write that off as we do it", and yes, if we sold the business and if you sold Ordnance Survey, if you privatised it, you would find that the database, which is its principal asset, would have a very large value. It is rather like it does not much matter what the house you live in is worth. People talk about it over dinner, but you actually have to live somewhere, so unless you are going to go somewhere else, there is no point in putting a monetary value on it and artificially having to increase the return you make to the Treasury; it would be daft, in my opinion.


  229. Do you think the amount of money flowing from the Government to the Ordnance Survey for their public service function is right?
  (Mr Roper) No. I think HMLR get an incredibly good deal. I thought that was the most extraordinary comment in the Quinquennial Review of HMLR that they have been paying over the odds for Ordnance Survey mapping. They run a business worth about £230 million a year of revenue which entirely depends on having that mapping. I run a business that turns over £22 million and cheerfully return the same amount to Ordnance Survey as HMLR do, so I think HMLR get a fantastic deal. I think the country as a whole gets a fantastic deal from NIMSA

  230. Could you please give us the full title rather than abbreviations.
  (Mr Roper) The National Interest Mapping Service Agreement. I think you get a terrific deal and my fear is that you are going to look to the commercial, the private sector to pay more and for the public sector to pay less and that would be a real concern that I would have.

Mrs Ellman

  231. Mr Roper, earlier you said that in the case of dispute, the courts were the only place you could have recourse to.
  (Mr Roper) Yes.

  232. Is that correct?
  (Mr Roper) Well, I have two joint ventures with Ordnance Survey and we have not really had a cross word in seven years, so we have never thought of going to the courts, but I have seen other people close to going to court with Ordnance Survey. We have maintained excellent relationships with them over the years and I hope we will continue to for many years to come, but it is a concern to me and it is certainly a concern to me if Ordnance Survey's status changes and it becomes more commercial, that if we do get into a dispute that we cannot resolve, we are in a very, very difficult and damaging position because I really do believe that litigation is rather like divorce in that once you are in the courts, everything is being torn up and everything is being said. I think if there were an independent regulator who could prevent that happening, it would be good for all parties. I think light regulation is a euphemism for no regulation. I want somebody to whom we could go and say, "Hey, we don't think this should be happening", and get a ruling. It might go against us, it might go for us. I am really not saying this from Landmark's point of view because, as I say, I think it has had a generally good relationship, but from the industry as a whole, and I have seen other cases in the past under previous managements of Ordnance Survey where I think bad decisions have been made and the situation would have been helped if there had been an independent regulator.

  233. What kind of regulator would you like to see and what kind of powers should the regulator have?
  (Mr Roper) I am not a lawyer and I am not an expert. I would like them to be able to say to Ordnance Survey or to the company concerned, "No, we think you are wrong. You cannot do that", or "You can do that", or "Go away and redo the contract because that contract is oppressive", or whatever it is. I think there should be somewhere where there should be a regulator to whom you could turn for help.

  234. So what are the areas you would like the regulator to be able to act in or to mediate in or rule in? Is it to do with the boundaries of work or the pricing?
  (Mr Roper) It is to do with the boundaries and within the Ordnance Survey layers. I think it would help, as Ordnance Survey think of moving their remit into these new layers of the Master Map, I think it would help if somebody was there to say, "You really shouldn't be doing that. That is something that is perfectly well taken care of by the private sector", or not.

Ms King

  235. Is that your view?
  (Mr Roper) That there should be a regulator?

  236. That it is something perfectly well taken care of by the private sector?
  (Mr Roper) No, I did not say that. I said that in all those layers there are other actors whose interests need to be taken into account and I am not suggesting that Ordnance Survey will not take them into account, but it is certainly possible that they will not and that disputes will arise and at present we do not have a good mechanism for resolving those disputes, and that is a serious concern to me.

Mr Betts

  237. Ordnance Survey's Director General is also the Geographic Adviser to the Government. Do you see that as a problem given that the Government is also Ordnance Survey's biggest customer?
  (Mr Roper) I see it as a problem, yes. I think it is a problem and I think that it puts Ordnance Survey into an intolerable position because I think it has in the past been that the Government has thought that they were simply arguing their corner when actually they were giving them good advice. I do not think it is always that Ordnance Survey argues its corner and is accepted and that gives it a benefit. I think the other thing happens as well, which is almost worse, that Ordnance Survey gives the right advice and that gets rejected because they are seen to be an interested party. I think there does need to be somewhere a disinterested party, and I do not know who that is. That is your job, not mine, to decide who it should be.


  238. Wait a minute. Do you think it is possible to find someone who has that depth of knowledge?
  (Mr Roper) Yes.

  239. And does not have a commercial interest?
  (Mr Roper) Yes, I think the Government gets adequate advice, and I think it is the Statistical Commission that gives advice on ONS and on statistics which is not part of the Office of National Statistics.

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