Ordnance Survey on road to sell-off, union chief warns

The Government plans to turn Ordnance Survey, founded in the 18th century, into a government-owned company by the end of the financial year in April

Trade union leaders fear that Britain’s state-owned national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, will be sold to big business.

The Government plans to turn Ordnance Survey, founded in the 18th century, into a government-owned company by the end of the financial year in April. The Southampton-based group will be granted commercial freedoms, such as being able to pay more to retain and recruit staff, but will remain in state hands and answerable to the Business Secretary.

The Public & Commercial Services Union believes that this is a precursor to privatisation. It points to Royal Mail, which was a GovCo until its shares started trading on the London Stock Exchange in 2013, as were major British companies like BP and Rolls-Royce. Although many of those companies have flourished in the private sector, unions argue that certain public sector work should not be driven by profit. They also fear redundancies.

Also, not all services work well even as a GovCo: the Forensic Science Office, which analysed crime scene evidence, made heavy losses and was shut down in 2012.  Redundancy costs have been estimated at nearly £60m.

The PCS official Tony Conway said: “We are worried that the creation of the GovCo is the first step to full or partial privatisation. Ordnance Survey should retain its role as our national mapping service, working for the national interest, not for profit.”

The Coalition is convinced that turning potentially lucrative civil service agencies into GovCos can help them to make money that will help to balance the nation’s books. Royal Mint, for example, was turned into a GovCo in the dying days of the last government, and the 1,100-year-old coin manufacturer turned a pre-tax profit of £5.7m in 2013-14.

The Highways Agency, which runs and maintains the most important roads, is also being turned into a GovCo, albeit through a more laborious process that requires legislation. The PCS has warned that giving the agency the opportunity of maximising profit could herald the roll-out of road pricing.

A Business department spokeswoman said: “Ordnance Survey is not being privatised. We are currently changing it to a Government Company to give greater flexibility to its business model.”

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