Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Local Government Data Unit (Wales)


  The Local Government Data Unit Wales (Data Unit) is an organisation which reflects the interests of local government in Wales and collects local government data for the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG). The Data Unit is wholly owned by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and operates under service level agreements with the WLGA and Statistical Directorate of WAG.

  The Data Unit seeks to improve the availability of data for Wales to improve local government and public services for the people in Wales. To this end, part of the remit is the use of geographical information products to improve the "legibility" of activities by linking people to place.

  Although Ordnance Survey is established as a trading agency under the Communities and Local Government Committee, the activities of the DCLG are virtually all devolved to the WAG. It thus appears as an anachronism that a Department with no authority in Wales is the major provider of geographic information, providing the WAG with limited input to the Department that regulates one of it's major suppliers.


Question 1—In 2002 the Committee's predecessor, the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee concluded in its report on Ordnance Survey "there is a clear need to define the boundaries of Ordnance Survey public service and national interest work". To what extent has the position changed in the intervening five years?

  The set up of OS as a trading agency muddies the waters as regard the public interest in the survey and it's development of geographic products, and the use of those products in the public interest. The question to be asked is what element of the work of OS is solely in the public interest (not being commercial in nature and analogous to "national statistics"), what is commercial material used in the public interest and finally, what is commercial?

  The need to ask those questions implies that there does need to be some definition of the boundaries of the public interest work of OS.

  It does seem illogical that the Treasury and, DCLG and devolved administrations distribute funds to further the governance of Britain, yet these are recovered through fees charged by a government trading agent and returned to the Treasury. This only costs the public purse each time a financial transaction needs to be made. With pressure to reduce expenditure from the public purse, it seems more logical to extract a fund at source, to cover governmental use of the geographic material from OS. This reduces the administrative overhead, maintains a real cost to government payable as a fee to OS (to avoid anticompetitive accusations) and leave government free to maximise their use of geographic products in the interest of the citizens.

Question 2—In 2002, the Select Committee also identified "a clear need for some form of independent arbitration so that conflicts could be resolved"" between Ordnance Survey and it's partners and customers. To what extent has that position changed in the intervening five years?

  Although OPSI is the guardian of the Crown Copyright, it is far from clear whether they have the influence or authority to arbitrate between OS customers or partners. Indeed, in a recent dispute, the authority was disputed by an appeal to APPSI.[76] During this period an OFT report [77] was critical of the way OS handled it's commercial products.

  In the light of these reports it seems clear that an independent arbitrator with authority is needed. That does not preclude existing players, but must have authority to enforce decisions.

Question 3—What is your assessment of the UK Geographic Panel's operation since its introduction in 2005?

  Judgement must be reserved until the GI Strategy document is put into the public domain. The requirement is a coherent strategy, based on good evidence with a clear timed action plan where activities are allocated with responsibility for delivery. There are also problems with Ministerial responsibility to accommodate devolved issues and the cross cutting nature of geographic information. As the DCLG is the sponsoring organisation of the GI Panel and most of DCLGs activities are devolved, it seems inappropriate for the panel to be located in that department.

  There will be issues of the effectiveness of a "UK" strategy document on devolved administrations with differing policy objectives, but the leadership is welcomed.

  Other than the GI Strategy, little has been seen from that Panel. Local Government in Wales has so far little understanding of the work of the Panel and the possible implications to their work.

Question 4—The Select Committee's predecessor, in recommending in 2002 that an advisory panel on geographic information should be created, suggested that it should have at least three members, including the Association of Geographic Information, Ordnance Survey and a private sector representative. Is the current panel's membership sufficiently balanced with three private sector representatives among its 12 members?

  The balance of commercial interest is not as much an issue as the low representation of local government, which arguably is one of the biggest users of geographic information in the public interest. SOLACE is the only body solely representing local government interests.

  If there is an issue with the commercial sector, it is that it is all with Ordnance Survey. It is important they are represented, but perhaps other commercial interest could be added to improve the interest in innovation in a wider environment. This could dilute some central government representation, but if that representation is provided as cross-cutting, rather than a vested interest this should not be an issue for departments and could improve effectiveness.

Question 5—In a memorandum to the Committee during it's recent inquiry into DCLG's Annual Report 2006, the Government said that the ending of NIMSA means " there is no distinction for Ordnance Survey between public service and commercial activity"". If that is the case, should the head of a commercially active organisation continue, ex-officio, to be official advisor to Ministers on "all aspects of survey, mapping and geographic information?

  There is an obvious issue of conflict of interest with the head of a commercial organisation advising a Minister. However, this particular situation is well known and in the public domain, which perhaps reduces the risk in this case. The head of Ordnance Survey has obvious expertise to give to government and perhaps, having commercial insight, is more likely to take a further reaching view to promote innovation.

Question 6—What impact will the ending of NIMSA have on rural mapping?

  This is a particular issue for Wales which has the highest proportion, of any home nation, of it's population in areas designated "rural". The issue is, to what standard will OS maintain the geographic products in sparse rural areas? The impact of any new development has a disproportionate effect on areas with little intrinsic development, so the currency of products is important. This is more important as Wales does not have a land use data base and the OS MasterMap product has obvious potential.

  Local authorities are obliged by law to develop road names and numbers[78], but need to relate any up-to-date address system to physical locations on the ground, for which mapping is essential.

  There are so many cross cutting implications for administrative boundary geography, rural baseline mapping and address information in rural areas. This was shown during the foot-and-mouth outbreak during the 2001 census period and will be so should an epidemic situation occur again.

Question 7—Will the procurement of necessary services be more expensive for local authorities now that Ordnance Survey is not providing them under NIMSA?

  This will not be known until 2009 for local government, when the current MSA concludes. The difficulties of agreeing a commercial deal is illustrated by the PGA not being concluded to the project timetable.

Question 8—Some Ordnance Survey competitors allege it is able to use it's position as a public sector information holder to compete unfairly, either by imposing over-stringent and costly license conditions or by developing products of its own in direct competition with theirs but without the associated licensing costs. There are further complaints that Ordnance Survey is an effective monopoly, preventing fair and transparent competition in the geographic information market. What is your view of these suggestions?

  OS started their trading position with an historic portfolio developed from the public purse, but have developed new products by investing from their trading fund built from that historic portfolio.

  There have been accusations of anti-competitive behaviour by OS, but this must be judged on the outcomes to the investigations following the complaints. However, that assumes an effective controlling regimen is in place (see question 2).

  From a local government point of view, it seems inequitable that material provided free becomes a chargeable product when presented back to local government as embedded data in OS and Royal Mail data sets.

  OS has invested in MasterMap and it could be argued that the level of investment has been so high that it has shut other possible producers out of the market. The effect of this will be evident during the next round of negotiations for mapping products. The issue that is of considerable concern to those using OS products is the intellectual property rights (IPR) demanded by OS over products derived using material from OS, but not embedding that material in the product. Thus any data set produced by local authorities for it's citizens should be destroyed if that local authority moved from OS the products that were used during it's creation. This is clearly unreasonable for the citizens and British local government as a whole. At present OS does not offer any legacy license agreements to reflect the value gained from their products in the past, but not dependent on current products.


  Ordnance Survey is an organisation with good products. There are issues with control of that organisation with regard to the public interest and competition. There are issues with the aggressive commercial stance taken by an organisation originating from publicly funded material.

  In Wales there are particular issues of rurality and language that need special consideration and are not always understood.

76 Back

77   ( Back

78   section 64 of the Towns Improvement Clauses Act 1847 and section 21 of the Public Health Acts Amendment Act 1907. Back

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