Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220
TUESDAY 19 MARCH 2002
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
(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",
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.
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
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
(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
228. So are you giving the Committee the right
(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.
231. Mr Roper, earlier you said that in the
case of dispute, the courts were the only place you could have
(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
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.
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
(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.