OS maps could be privatised by stealth

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The Independent Online

Ramblers and mapping experts claim that Ordnance Survey, the Government's cartographic agency, is being privatised by stealth.

Ramblers and mapping experts claim that Ordnance Survey, the Government's cartographic agency, is being privatised by stealth.

Sally Keeble MP, the government minister responsible for Ordnance Survey, has already said she is "minded" to make the agency a government-owned PLC, but denies that it is to be privatised.

However, informed Whitehall sources say the Treasury is pushing the Government into turning the 200-year-old mapping agency into a cash cow. It is believed to be worth at least £500m if sold into the private sector.

Opponents of privatisation, including authoritative sources inside Ordnance Survey, fear that a sell-off would turn into a costly fiasco.

Ordnance Survey, set up in 1791, has earned a reputation as one of the finest national mapping agencies in the world. Selling maps to Britain's army of countryside walkers is a small and unprofitable part of its remit. It owns the copyright to mapping swathes of Britain and the real profit comes from selling its huge database to government departments, utilities, architects and developers.

One well-placed source said: "Despite what is being said, there is no real reason to turn Ordnance Survey into a government-owned PLC except to make it easier to privatise when the time comes."

The Ramblers Association, whose members make so much use of OS maps of Britain, said: "We would be absolutely appalled if OS was privatised."

Publicly, the Government is denying that it will privatise Ordnance Survey. At an Urban Affairs select committee hearing 10 days ago Ms Keeble said she was personally opposed to privatisation.

"I think it is important that OS succeeds and, with the level of information that you can get in a national database of this type, that it is within the public sector and protected by Crown copyright."

But Dr Robert Barr of Manchester University and a former chairman of the Association of Geographical Information, believes the Treasury's view is that the taxpayer should not carry the burden of producing national mapping.

"It is a natural progression from that view to a view that Ordnance Survey is a prime candidate for privatisation and that making it a publicly owned PLC may be a step on that road," he said.

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