Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Ordnance Survey business model “to be considered”; national geographic strategy coming Tuesday

The Pre-Budget Report isn’t usually required reading for Free Our Data, but this time around it was, partly because expectations had been raised by the Sunday Times story suggesting that OS and other trading funds were in line for privatisation. (I was doubtful. I just don’t think privatisation is in this administration’s DNA. Everything it’s done with banks, after all, goes in completely the opposite direction.)

Here’s the relevant extract from the PBR (1.7MB PDF)

Re-use of public sector information from trading funds

4.54 The HM Treasury/Shareholder Executive assessment of trading funds has considered the potential for innovation and growth from increasing commercial and other use of public sector information. It will shortly publish some key principles for the re-use of this information, consider how these currently apply in each of the trading funds and how they might apply in the future, and the role of the Office of Public Sector Information in ensuring that Government policy is fully reflected in practice. For the Ordnance Survey, this will involve consideration of its underlying business model. Further details will be announced in Budget 2009. [emphasis added]

As Ed Parsons, former chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey and now a map guru at Google, points out:

This is not about privatisation – this is about how the OS trades.. how it charges for data, and its relationship with other departments. This has been on the cards for a while, although I think the issue with derived data no doubt moved this up the agenda a bit!

Yes, the issue of derived data really has stirred things up within Whitehall. And we hear that on Tuesday the national geographic strategy for the UK – often promised, never yet seen – will be published. That might be interesting too.

Update: we’ve been pointed to some more mentions of OS and other trading funds. Seems the Sunday Times wasn’t completely wrong about some being in line for privatisation – but OS still isn’t.

The relevant section is in Box 6.4 (“Operational Efficiency Programme – Asset strand”), on page 119 of the report. My comments in [italics]

Gerry Grimstone is heading the asset strand of the Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP), and will be working with departments, agencies, and the Shareholder Executive to consider, for a number of Government assets, the potential for alternative business models, commercialisation, new market opportunities and, where appropriate, alternatives to public ownership. The work includes:


• a review of British Waterways’ model for managing its canal-side property portfolio which  will assess how best public value might be delivered from these assets in the medium term; [partial or complete privatisation? What does BW do that needs to be in government hands?]


• options for the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, after a recent study concluded there was no public policy rationale for the Government to own it; [looks like a selloff]


• a strategic review into the future business model of the Ordnance Survey, that will take into account its role as a public sector information provider, together with providing value for money for the taxpayers; [doesn’t look like a selloff because of the “role as a PSI provider”]


• work with the Land Registry to explore ways to improve its operating framework; [again, no selloff; operating frameworks are how you get stuff done, not whether you’re private or not]


• widening the scope of the study of capacity requirements at the Dartford Crossing to include the potential to realise value for the taxpayers and, in addition, continuing to explore options  for the commercialisation of other transport assets; [“realise value” for taxpayers sounds like a selloff]


• a study to explore the potential benefits of alternative future models for the Royal Mint; [unclear]


• reviews of the Met Office, Oil & Pipeline Agency, and Defence Storage & Distribution Agency examining alternative business models. [notable that it doesn’t mention Met Office’s role as a PSI provider, which is rather suspicious]


Budget 2009 will report on progress, and will also take into account market conditions and the views of relevant stakeholders. Gerry Grimstone will work with Lord Carter of Coles, who heads up the OEP Property workstrand, in ensuring that any appropriate efficiencies in relation to property associated with these assets are taken in account.

There’s also some interesting mentions at the end: read in full to see how the market is affecting thoughts of selloffs – or not:

Departments are also working to achieve efficiencies on other Government assets:


• the Ministry of Defence will shortly publish its response to a recent consultation on its plans to release and share parts of its electromagnetic spectrum holdings, with the release process for initial spectrum bands beginning in Spring 2009;


• the Government continues to explore options for realizing value from its stake in Urenco;


• a study of the Forestry Commission’s portfolio in England is being launched to examine options for delivery of public value from the estate in the long term; [=selloff]


• a major redevelopment by Covent Garden Market Authority will aim to put it on a sustainable financial footing, enabling the Government to achieve its long-term objective of disengagement.[=selloff]


In addition, it was concluded in October not to pursue a sale of the Tote in light of current market conditions, and that it should be retained in public ownership for the medium term, to be brought to the market when conditions are likely to deliver value for the taxpayers and the racing industry. [=no selloff because there are no buyers.]

Privatisation, of course, is all very well if you can find a buyer. But in a falling, or stagnant, market, you can’t get the best price. Alastair Darling would be in a weak position if he sold any assets off now only to see the market rise before an election – which would open him to accusations of selling the country short.

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