HC Deb 23 January 1980 vol 977 cc610-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

11.42 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I am delighted to have a chance tonight to start a short debate on the report of the Ordnance Survey review committee. I realise that this does not appear to interest many of my constituents, nor millions of people in the country. However, I stress that good maps are important to a large number of people.

Administering a modern State would be almost impossible without good maps. Equally, a steadily increasing number of people use maps to increase the pleasure they obtain from their sport or recreation. Therefore, it is unfortunate that there has not been much more debate and public discussion of the report. It is particularly unfortunate since Sir David Serpell and his committee did such a first-class job and produced such a good report. I congratulate them. However, why the report had to be priced at £20 I do not know, unless the Government wanted to discourage debate on it.

Tonight, my main concern is to ask the Government to make clear their attitude to the recommendations in the report and to tell us when they will give the Ordnance Survey, a clear remit for what it is expected to do in the next 20 years. The first question to which I should like to refer is one that is raised in considerable detail in the report—that of digital mapping. It has become fashionable to suggest that microprocessors or computers will take over increasing areas of our life, but it is clear that they could have far-reaching effects on map making.

The review looks very carefully at the Ordnance Survey development of digital mapping and notes that so far it has had few advantages over conventional methods. It may have been an interesting experiment, out the costs are often higher and often it takes just as long to produce a map. However, it looks as though there is the possibility that future developments will bring substantial advantages and that digital mapping may very well be very attractive, particularly for such bodies as the Land Registry. the local authorities and the public utilities. There are possibilities that a digital system can offer specialist leisure users, particularly walkers, climbers and similar groups, much better maps.

The report suggests that there should be two data bases, one for small-scale and one for large-scale maps. It suggests that the Ordnance Survey should approach this task in two stages. First, it should have from the Government over the next two years perhaps £600,000 so that it can investigate which is the best approach and which of the many systems that are being offered has most attractions. The second stage, which would probably take 10 years to complete and perhaps cost £15 million to £16 million, should by 1984 produce a computer data base for the 1:50,000 scale maps and then by 1993 for the larger-scale maps. Will the Government encourage the Ordnance Survey in that initiative? Will they authorise the first stage—namely, to decide which systems to go for? Is it hoped to introduce the long-term objective of getting digital bases for both small—and large-scale maps?

Much concern has been expressed by many charitable organisations and other leisure groups about the attitude of the Ordnance Survey to copyright over recent years. They have felt that the Ordnance Survey has increased its copyright charges too quickly and has discouraged many groups from reprinting all or parts of maps. I have received representations from groups which want to promote orienteering. They claim that it is increasingly difficult to cover the costs of reproducing bits of map for their purposes. I have also received representations from groups which are trying to encourage nature trails. They say that they have found it difficult to meet the costs of publishing booklets as well as providing other information.

The report makes some good recommendations to the effect that the copyright provisions for the sort of group to which I have referred should be eased. It will be helpful to quote the "Summary of main recommendations". It states: OS should continue to seek substantial revenue from copyright fees but should adopt a more flexible approach to certain categories of user; in particular, (a) copyright charges should be waived on the publication of research findings; (b) in addition to the existing arrangements for educational users, OS should adopt HMSO's policy of giving a 50 per cent. discount on the normal copyright fee payable by educational publishers in cases where the primary purpose of a publication is use in an educational institution. The last recommendation states: OS should waive fees on copying by charitable organisations, up to a specified volume per year (within the size limits permitted by current OS copyright regulations) for a trial period to assess the effect on sales revenue. OS should consider also ways of extending waivers in this area once the effects of the concessions to charitable organisations have been assessed. Those seem to be sensible recommendations that meet many of the arguments that have been put to me by many of those who want to use maps for recreational and leisure purposes.

I stress that there are problems concerning charitable organisations. I understand that some organisations which exist merely to promote interest in sport are barred from holding charitable status. I hope that the Minister will indicate that the Ordnance Survey will treat the term "charitable" in a wider context than merely organisations recognised by the Charity Commissioners.

I turn to the future of the 1:25,000 series. It is often referred to as the old 2½-in map. I understand that it is to be renamed by the Ordnance Survey the Pathfinder map. The report makes a good comment: OS should continue to produce the 1:25,000 series, as a core activity. OS should market it actively while investigating the scope for less costly ways of meeting user needs, and attempt to increase the proportion of costs covered by revenue while increasing use of the series. That is a helpful section in the report, and it is worrying that the press release from the Department of the Environment used the phrase "if resources are available". It drew attention to a small section in the report which said that if resources were not available there were three options that should be considered—namely, a reduced rate of provision of the second series, suspension of the second series or an attempt to increase revenue from the 1:50,000 national series to cover the costs.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that any one of the three options would be unfortunate in its effect? Does he accept that the 1:25,000 is a useful map because it is the smallest scale on which field boundaries are easily visible? It is useful for a wide range of purposes because of that facility.

Mr. Bennett

My hon. Friend takes me on to the point that I was about to develop. It is the essential map for the walker, who does not want to run the risk of being slightly off his path and causing nuisance to farmers by cutting across hedges and fields in the wrong place. For 10 years there have been arguments about this map. Fortunately, on every occasion the Government have come to the conclusion that the series should be continued. We are now approaching the situation where about 80 per cent. of the country is covered by these maps. Having come so close to national coverage, it would be an appalling decision to stop there. It is analogous to building a house with almost everything in it but saying that because the front door is not on it cannot be used.

The big problem for the Ordnance Survey has been that until it has national coverage it is difficult to run a major publicity campaign, because if someone asks in a local shop for a map of the one part of the country that is still not covered, that results in a backlash. There have, therefore, been great difficulties in marketing. If national coverage can be achieved, many of the problems will be overcome.

It is also clear from the report that if digitisation is developed we may be able to produce the maps much more cheaply. I therefore hope that the Minister can assure us that the 1:25,000 map will continue to be a core activity of the Ordnance Survey.

I believe that the sheets should cover rather larger areas, which would cut down cost. I should also like to see the Ordnance Survey develop the policy of printing sheets on the back and front, as it has done with one or two of the leisure maps.

I stress that the map is essential for walkers and climbers and is particularly important for mountain safety. It also has great value to farmers. It helps those who use the countryside to make sure that they are in the right place.

If the Ordnance Survey could improve-its marketing, groups such as the Ramblers' Association and the YHA would do their bit to promote the maps. I hope that the Minister can guarantee that those maps will be available.

The report suggests that much better survey of coastal—bathymetric—information would be helpful, particularly for those concerned with coastal or deep sea diving. There have recently been complaints about the way in which the large-scale maps are produced from microfilm. There could be improvements there.

The report also stresses that the consultative machinery is not as good as it might be and suggests ways to improve it. Finally, it stresses that it believes that the Ordnance Survey could do a great deal to improve marketing. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the report will be implemented.

The introduction to the report's conclusions says: OS will be faced during the next twenty years with four major tasks: to keep the archive up-to-date by a thorough and economic process of revision to make the information from the up-dated archive available to users promptly"— I stress promptly— and in forms acceptable to them in an era of technological change, to take advantage of progress (especially in the provision of data in digital form) which enables it to maintain or improve its performance to continue to transform itself from being a rather inward-looking and conservatively-run organisation into one that looks to the future and is responsive to the change and to developments elsewhere. That is a useful comment, and I hope that the Minister can tell us that the Ordnance Survey will be given clear guidance to implement the suggestions in the report and also that the Government will guarantee the resources to carry out those suggestions.

11.54 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) for providing an opportunity for views to be expressed on the report of the Ordnance Survey review committee. The hon. Member has long displayed a friendly, constructive and knowledgeable interest in Ordnance Survey matters from the map users' standpoint. Indeed, I have read afresh the contribution that he made to the earlier debate on the organisation that he initiated in July 1977, when the study undertaken by the review committee was first being mooted. What he had to say on that occasion was as pertinent as his speech tonight.

I have taken careful note of the many interesting points that he has made and will certainly bring them to the attention of my right hon. Friend, who is at present considering the review committee's report and the views that have been expressed on it.

The hon. Member asked me to give a number of assurances. Bearing in mind that consideration of the report is still taking place, there is a limit to what I can say to him. However, I can say immediately that the Ordnance Survey is widely respected in this country, and most of us, at some time or other, have had cause to be grateful for the maps that it provides. The hon. Member is especially concerned with ramblers and walkers, but the list of those who benefit is endless.

My recent visit to OS headquarters at Southampton unquestionably reinforced my own high regard for the institution and the quality of its work. I have seen the people who work there and the complexities of the job they do. I was particularly struck by the corporate spirit of the department, their pride in their long tradition of service to the community and the pains they have taken to co-operate with the review committee in its examination of their future tasks and how they must adapt themselves to deal with them.

The OS has been playing a key role in the provision of essential information for the management of this country for nearly 200 years, and I can certainly assure the hon. Member that it is here to stay. Indeed, as the review committee points out, in many modern develop- ments its future role may be even greater. Of course, the OS will need to adapt to changing needs and fast-developing technologies, and in that respect the report of the review committee has made a most valuable contribution.

There can be little doubt that the review committee, which was asked to consider and make recommendations on the longer-term policies of OS and ways of financing them, was given an important and formidable task. Those who have studied the report will have noted the thoroughness and care with which it was carried out—and the speed with which it was completed. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that it has produced a comprehensive document from which the Government can proceed to reach their conclusions, and I should like to take this opportunity to express the Government's gratitude to Sir David Serpell, as chairman, as well as to his colleagues on the committee for the work they have done.

It is clear from his contribution tonight how much importance the hon. Member for Stockport, North attaches to the services and products of the Ordnance Survey. He referred in particular to the matters raised in evidence given to the review committee by the Ramblers' Association and the Central Council for Physical Recreation. They are two of 450 organisations and individuals who gave evidence to the committee, which shows how important the OS and its future is to many people.

Both the association and the council covered a wide range of issues of interest and concern to their members, ranging from the availability and coverage of maps—and the amount of detail shown on them—to broader issues such as the extent to which the OS should be required to pay its way or be treated as a public service. Those were among the questions to which the review committee addressed itself, and it made a number of recommendations on them. The hon. Member will understand that since consideration of the report is in progress it would not be proper for me to anticipate what the Government's conclusions will be.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Can the Minister give us some idea of the time scale in which the report is being considered and how soon he will be able to give us answers? I am sure that he appreciates that on the digital side the report recommends that action should be taken during this and the next financial year.

Mr. Fox

That is a fair point. I assure the hon. Member that we are close to arriving at conclusions. Our immediate aim is to settle as quickly as possible the framework of basic decisions from which the OS can proceed. It is my right hon. Friend's intention to make a statement fairly soon.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) talked about the 1:25,000 map series. I think that the press release of 30 October 1979 was claimed to be misleading in stating that the review committee had recommended retaining the 1:25,000 map series as a core activity if resources were available. I am sorry if anyone gained the wrong impression. The press release was intended to reflect, in brief, the content of paragraphs 7.28 and 15.30 of the report. Paragraph 7.28, having stated that the committee classified the series as core activity, goes on to point out that it is a costly series, that the value of the series is a long way from being matched by revenue from its users but that it is largely because of the alternatives provided by the 1:50,000 series and the 1:10,000 series that the 1:25,000 must be considered vulnerable. Paragraph 15.31 also makes clear that if, contrary to the committee's assumptions and recommendations, the Ordnance Survey was required to reduce its call on the Exchequer, the committee would expect action in such areas as a reduced rate of provision of the second series of the 1:25,000 series and suspension of the 1:25,000 scale series as a national series. I shall take note of the interesting points made on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman raised one or two other matters, including the fact that the report costs £20. I assure him that it was not our intention to raise the cost to such a figure that debate would be stifled. This was the minimum amount needed to recover estimated costs for an edition of 1,500 copies. We thought it right that a proportion should make a contribution towards overheads. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the report. It was not a straightforward printing job. It was a complex production that included five colour maps. It could not, therefore, be priced at Her Majesty's Stationery Office standard scales. The basic production cost of the colour cover was about 25p a copy.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned copyright charges. Looking at the copyright figures, which vary from 0.5p to lop, I hardly find those charges exorbitant. I shall, however, bear in mind the points made by the hon. Gentleman, especially those relating to charities, accepting that word in its widest context.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of digital data development. The committee said that there was a strong case, on financial grounds, for authorising the Ordnance Survey to proceed with its pioneering work on the development and introduction of digital methods of map production. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will take this into account when considering what logical extension of the Ordnance Survey's present programme is appropriate. In the meantime, I should like to assure hon. Members that there has been no standstill in the preparatory activity in this area.

This has been an interesting and useful debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he has made. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that the reason why I have not been able to respond on certain matters is that these bear heavily upon the Government's conclusions, shortly to be announced, on the review committee's report. But, as I said, I can certainly give an assurance that what has been said will be taken into account.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve o'clock