Ordnance Survey

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st July 1977.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Stockport North 12:00 am, 1st July 1977

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise today the question of the Government's review of Ordnance Survey maps. All those who use such maps were pleased when, on 6th May, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced that he was to set up a review of the workings of the Ordnance Survey. They were perhaps a little disappointed in that, although he issued a Press notice which took up over a page, only one-third of it was concerned with the review while two-thirds were concerned to tell us that, while the review was going on, there were to be substantial increases in the price of maps.

I wish that we had been given much more information about the review and the study and that we could have been told that for the time being at least there would be no increase in the price of maps.

I hope that this afternoon the Minister will tell us a little more about the proposed study. I understand that its function is to consider what the Ordnance Survey should be doing in the 1980s. I welcome that, and I know that groups such as the Ramblers Association and other map users will welcome it.

Is the study to be an internal departmental study, or is it to be more independent? Who will chair it? What is the relationship between the study and the Map Users' Conference, which at present makes suggestions and gives advice to the Ordnance Survey? Who will be asked to submit views to the study? How will they submit their views? Will it be by written or oral evidence? When will these pieces of evidence be required? Is it intended that the study will be published when it is completed? I hope that my hon. Friend is able to give us that information about the study. Clearly, map users are interested to know how far the review will go. If my hon. Friend cannot tell us today, I hope he will be able very soon to publish details of the review.

I must protest as it seems that in some ways the setting up of the committee was a smokescreen, or a thick mist, to cover the Government's proposals for major increases in charges for Ordnance Survey maps. It seems ridiculous to set up a study, part of which must be to consider who should pay for the Ordnance Survey, whether it should be self-financing from the sale of maps, or whether it should continue to have a substantial Exchequer grant, and at the same time to say that, notwithstanding the review, there will be some savage price increases.

Fairly soon after the Second World War, as a young Scout, I bought my first Ordnance Survey map. I think that it cost me either 2s. 3d. or the old half-crown. It was of the Llangollen area of North Wales. The cost of the map at that time was about the cost of a night's stay in YHA accommodation.

That map now costs £1.15, just about 10 times as much. It is now considerably dearer than the cost of one night's YHA accommodation. If the Government's proposed increases go ahead, the price of that map could increase to about £1.80, or even £2. As it has been metricated, it covers a rather smaller area. Many people feel that it does not quite meet the old standards of the 1-in. map.

If there have been startling increases in the cost of maps since the Second World War, the most startling has been in the past few years. Many who are concerned with maps very much welcomed the start in 1972 and 1973 of the publication of outdoor leisure maps. During that period I bought one such map of the Three Peaks. It cost me 95p in 1974. That same map today costs £1·50. I understand that the outdoor leisure maps of Snowdonia and the Conway Valley, which the Ordnance Survey said it would publish in May, then in June, and which presumably will arrive in July, have now been priced at £1·95. Between 1974 and today those maps have doubled in price. That is a startling increase.

Would it not have been better for the study to have considered costs? Perhaps we should be asking about the efficiency of the Ordnance Survey. Surely that is a relevant issue. I am told that in the 1960s the Ordnance Survey employed one administrator for about 13 production staff. I believe that there is now one administrator for every six production staff. Surely that is a trend that the review should consider.

In the 1960s the Ordnance Survey had to cope with three head offices. It is now in one purpose-built building. Surely that has reduced administrative costs to some extent.

The major point of the pre-emptive price increase is that it reverses a fundamental policy without the Minister making the matter clear to the House. It was established in 1866, and it even survived through the financial crisis of 1931, that the recording of information for maps should be a national service. Pos- sibly it was done originally for military purposes. More recently it has been done for good government purposes. If we are to continue to have good government, the surveying should continue to be paid for by Exchequer grants. The sale of maps should merely cover the cost of the printing, publication and distribution of the maps. Map sales should never have to cover the cost of the survey work.

In the past, 80 per cent. of the finance for the Ordnance Survey came from the Exchequer and 20 per cent. came from the sale of maps. In recent years 65 per cent. of it has come from the Exchequer and 35 per cent. of it has come from the sale of maps. It appears from the recent Press release that the Minister wishes 45 per cent. of the finance to come from the sale of maps and 55 per cent. to come from the Exchequer grant.

We have no evidence that the increases that the Minister suggests will bring the Ordnance Survey any extra money. It was made clear in the annual report of the Ordnance Survey last year that there had been considerable customer resistance to price increases and that there had been fewer sales than had been hoped for. If map prices increase by the amounts suggested, the Ordnance Survey might not get back as much money as it might otherwise have done. It would be sad if increased prices resulted in far fewer maps being sold. Has the Minister any evidence to show that the market will stand these price increases?

The point about which I wish to press the Minister most strongly is the extent to which he has considered the safety angle. I suspect that if the maps became dearer, more money might result, but there might be many more accidents in mountainous areas. I have been trying for some time to ascertain the cost of major mountain rescues, and I am always assured that it is difficult to work out the cost because every rescue is different. I accept that.

I realise that if a rescue is necessary because someone has fallen the map can hardly be blamed for it. Rescues which involve searches are often those in which people have gone into mountainous areas possibly ill-equipped, often without maps, often with the wrong map, or because they have been unable to use the map and have got lost, and much public expenditure is incurred through people having to look for them.

I wonder whether the Minister has any information about the cost of mountain rescues. I suspect that major searches in, say, Snowdonia cost well over £1,000 to such Government Departments as the Ministry of Defence when RAF helicopters are involved. They involve the civil police in the area in substanial costs and voluntary organisations subscribe large amounts of money. If the Minister can give me some idea of the cost, I shall be grateful.

The Minister should balance considerations of this sort against the extra revenue that the Government might obtain from the sale of maps. I suspect that if maps become dearer, more people will not know how to use them, and more people will go out with the wrong map or without a map at all, and we are therefore likely to see an increase in the sorts of rescues that are necessary when people get lost, possibly in bad weather conditions.

The next subject about which I am concerned is planning. I believe that maps are essential for planning, and I am very concerned that the price has increased, particularly for some of the large-scale maps. The latest figure I have is that the price for an up-to-date map is up to £9. This will discourage people from using maps for planning purposes. My hon. Friend the Minister should look at this matter very carefully, especially since the Department is very keen to encourage public participation in planning.

The main argument that I put to my hon. Friend is that, although we welcome the review, we should have much preferred it to include the question of cost instead of finding that the costs have been increased before the review takes place. I should like the review to look at pricing and particularly the use of microfilm and the way in which some groups of people seem to be able to make copies from Ordnance Survey maps and produce fairly cheaply large-scale maps which are then passed out to the general public through planning departments. Yet in other areas maps are very expensive, and if people go to an official Ordnance Survey outlet, they find the maps very expensive indeed.

I should like the review to look at not only how quickly the 1:25,000 survey can be completed but how the sheets can be published. The question of mapping standards should also be examined.

One of the most disappointing matters is that, when maps went metric and there was a little more space on them, foot-paths were not marked more clearly. The Ramblers Association is very disturbed that, having made representations to the Map Users' Conference asking for a clearer red marking and asking that footpaths should be shown more clearly, in the recent second edition of metric maps this improvement has not taken place. I am still concerned that it was decided not to continue to differentiate in forestry areas between coniferous and deciduous forest.

I also wonder whether we have the scales right following metrication. Were the 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 the right general purpose scales, or might 1:40,000 and 1:20,000 have been far more useful? If map production by the Ordnance Survey can now be carried out with computers, which I welcome, consideration might be given to slightly different scales which might be more use to the walker and the motorist.

There are many other questions that I should like the review to examine, but I have already spoken too long for an Adjournment debate. I beg my hon. Friend to give us more information about his review and tell us that, for the time being at least, he is freeezing all further price increases in the interests of outdoor pursuits, safety and the interest of good government.