Independence Minutiae: Ordnance Survey

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Today it’s time to focus on one of the more boring, but overlooked, issues in relation to independence. It was so boring the Scottish Government didn’t even address it in Scotland’s Future (pdf) – along with many other things.

What is the Ordnance Survey’s status?

Ordnance Survey (OS) are the official mapping authority for Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall). They have a somewhat fluid status, being an executive agency (like the DVLA or HMRC), but also have hallmarks of a Quango and trading fund of the UK Government.

Northern Ireland has its own Ordnance Survey (Land and Property Services), which is run as part of the Northern Irish Department for Finance & Personnel.

OS employs around 1,200 people and is based in Southampton, though they have regional offices around Great Britain, including one in Cardiff. I’m not sure if there are other offices in Wales.

In the latest annual report for 2013-14 (pdf p39), OS raised £147.5million in revenues (around 50% of this [£73.6million] being government funding) and from joint ventures. It had costs of £115.8million – meaning it ran with an operating profit of £31.7million. It also holds around £180million in assets.

So the financial situation looks pretty rosy and OS appears to be well run.

With the Westminster Coalition determined to sell off public assets, the privatisation of OS seems inevitable. However, it’s been talked about for the best part of a decade and nothing has happened….yet….maybe with good reason.

Why is official mapping important?

It’s an official record of what the country looks like for a start, which is essential for public bodies like the Land Registry, planning authorities, utilities companies and the general public.

OS also provides services such as:

  • Transport and communications – The exact paths of road, waterways, public rights of way and exact addresses.
  • Business maps – For professional use by utilities companies, postal/delivery services, logistics companies and planning authorities.
  • Public maps – For tourists or travel use (i.e Landranger maps).
  • Recording land use – A key part of the planning process.
  • Elections – The precise boundaries of electoral wards and constituencies, working with the likes of the Boundary Commission.
  • Education – Maps for schools, and teaching tools for children to learn about how to read maps and how to use them properly.
  • New mapping technologies – OS are developing a range of mobile and tablet apps for the public to use, as well as “print on demand” maps.

As OS straddles a line between being a state agency and a commercial operation, it also provides advice and consultancy services to other equivalent organisations around the world.

Independence and the Ordnance Survey

There are three main options here:

Continue to use OS as the official mapping authority for the island of Great Britain – This is the easiest, and perhaps most sensible, option. There would need to be dues paid by the Welsh Government and/or Welsh agencies that require official mapping services. Based off OS’s revenue figures, that would be circa £3.7million on a proportional population basis.

There would probably have to be Welsh membership at board level, some sort of official office in Wales and co-ordination between governments with regard mapping policies.

There’s also an inherent risk attached to leaving official mapping services in the hands of (what would then be) a foreign government.

Have no official mapping authority – This would, in effect, privatise official mapping services, and agencies would buy these services on the open market. It might boost GIS companies in Wales (more from the University of South Wales) and could even lead to more innovation and research investment.

The Welsh Government could tender a contract for a “state mapping authority” to provide official data for a set term (10-20 years), and this might provide better value for money than paying OS a “membership fee”.

A Welsh Ordnance Survey – A publicly-owned mapping service, probably as a sub-department of the Welsh Government (like Northern Ireland) or even combined with a Welsh equivalent of the Land Registry and/or Office of National Statistics.

It’s hard to make a comparison with Northern Ireland in terms of running costs, as Land & Property Services are also responsible for collecting rates (NI’s equivalent of Council Tax and Business Rates). In Wales we leave that to the Welsh Government and local authorities themselves. The closest comparison, therefore, would be the Republic of Ireland, whose own official mapping authority offers pretty much exactly the same services as Great Britain’s OS.

According to Ordnance Survey Ireland’s annual report 2012 (pdf), it received €8.5million (£6.7million) in central government grants and raised €18.3million (£14.4million) in sales. After costs, it had a surplus of €2.3million (£1.8million) – but this was wiped out by over €8.1million in pension liabilities.

So, in conclusion, it appears official mapping services are generally profitable, but when it comes to independence, it would be best to make the decision that meets Welsh needs. Our options here are pretty much open, but maybe – at least at the start – it’s perhaps best to stick with what expertise we have and know until those needs change or policies start to diverge.