Ordnance Survey fees – no thanks!

I’m not sure I’m convinced by the Taxpayers’ Alliance defence of Ordnance Survey and its funding structure (“Well-charted territory – “free” means we pay…”, October 31), especially when one applies a little free-market economics to the claims being bandied about by OS supremo Vanessa Lawrence.

First and foremost, Ordnance Survey is a monopoly, so claims about profitability, product quality, dividends and running costs are moot – we have nothing to compare them against. Would it be just as good value if the OS cost £200 million to run and paid a 8% dividend? Economic theory gives us a good idea of what actually to expect – price maximisation, inefficency and stagnation. It’s easy to turn a profit when you got your capital assets for free and can charge whatever you feel like.

Is it a world-class service? Maybe today, but what about the mapping services of tomorrow? Innovation and investment in mapping is stifled because the private sector (the main driver of innovation) can’t compete. TPA claim that public and private organisations are “happy to pay”, but what of the budding businesses and good ideas that never even got off the ground because they couldn’t afford the fees? There’s a thriving, tax-paying mapping industry built on the back of the geospatial data provided for free by the US Government. The mapping industry in Europe is comparatively moribund.

Also, don’t forget the primary customers of the OS – other government departments. So a big chunk of OS income is just taxpayers’ cash doing the merry-go-round. This is a business operating in a fantasy marketplace, not the grown-up world of profit and loss.

Would privatisation help? I’d be very happy to hear the complacent Ms Lawrence sing for her supper a little more vigorously, but not if it means valuable assets currently owned by the taxpayer – the grid reference system, for example – flogged off on the cheap so that somebody can carve out a private monopoly instead. Better for those assets to be made available as cheaply and widely as possible – we’ll all benefit from the results.

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One Response to “Ordnance Survey fees – no thanks!”

  1. Bernard Phillips says:

    In short, I couldn’t agree more. The pricing structire of the OS is not fixed to demand let alone the market. Without stipulating maximum income streams they stop more successful enterprises even considering utilising them.

    Lets not privatise, lets optimise their commercial attitude.

    Best regards,


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