SONA submission to OFT review of the proposed Ordnance Survey/LGA joint venture: GeoPlace
I am writing to you in my capacity as Expert Member of the Government's Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information and as a former Managing Director at the privatised TSO The Stationery Office and other public sector related information businesses.
The proposed creation of Geoplace raises some critical issues of Competition law and State Aid which the OFT should consider most carefully.
Geoplace will have an aggregated monopoly of critical public sector information which is unique, authoritative and which - insofar as one can tell from the published information - no private company can have access to without a charging mechanism levied by the commercial body which is being established.
Several observations may be made:
Will basis of charging be transparent so that it is clear that customers are being charged only at marginal cost of distribution which are incurred after the public sector task of this body is fulfilled?
Will the new body make any distinction between datasets which it is its public task to collect and curate and adjacent datasets which grow over time or which are collected as a by-product of its public task activities? It is difficult for private companies to invest in a market if it is not clear where the public task and commercial operations of this Government owned joint venture begin and end.
The public sector will be treated differently in terms of charging by Geoplace - by reason of the bulk purchase arrangement of the Public Sector Mapping Agreement. Without this agreement, or at least relevant terms, being made more transparent, it is difficult to know if the agreement masks any anti- competitive arrangements which may be prejudicial to the operation of a free market. In particular, we feel that if the new joint venture becomes the exclusive provider of such data services from its public sector bodies, then it's operation also as a commercial body brings with it unbearable tensions around Governance and competition law.
In summary therefore, we would recommend that the new body's public task be clarified, and in particular in relation to the datasets which are core to this activity.
We recommend that a greater degree of transparency operates in relation to its commercial arrangements with the public sector, which is critical to the whole question of State Aid.
These recommendations are entirely coincident with the OFT's own views as expressed in the CUPI Report and with the general trend of Government policy towards transparency and enterprise.
Our issues are related not to Government bodies' charging for information, but to the more important issues of Competition law and State Aid.
The creation of Geoplace is an opportunity for Government to clarify these issues and set a standard for public sector information governance.
22nd December 2010