All entries for Saturday 22 November 2008

November 22, 2008

Return of the 'P' word

Tomorrow’s Sunday Times leads on details of Alistair Darling’s planned spending cuts to boost the economy. From the article:

Cuts in Vat are to form a key plank of Gordon Brown’s emergency economic rescue package to be unveiled tomorrow… A 2.5% Vat cut would cost £12.5 billion a year, making it by far the biggest element of Brown’s £15 billion-plus “fiscal stimulus”.

But it’s further down the article that the bigger story could lie.

Officials are drawing up plans for a sale of government assets including the Met Office, the Ordnance Survey and thousands of acres of Forestry Commission land.

Using this image probably breaks that Crown Copyright. But ho hum.It’s strange that this green-light for new privatisation is given no further comment in the article. Not only is it a change of tune for New Labour, but the choice of government agencies in the firing line is bizarre. The sale of all three would constitute minimal short-term gain in return for extraordinary long-term pain.

Firstly, with the Met Office. Selling off this public service (for never was the term more apt than in predicting the country’s weather) is bound to lead to a rush to commercialise forecasting. Don’t worry about the BBC having to pay more for weather data, that’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If the Met Office is put in private hands, it’s sure to lead to big price increases for farmers, fishermen and aircraft pilots, all of whom rely on weather forecasting much more detailed than you find in a TV bulletin.

Secondly, Ordnance Survey. OS already behaves like a commercial company in many ways, demanding licence fees for almost any map of Britain. They’re currently in a scrap with Google over Google Maps, and this week tried to tell the Home Secretary what she could and couldn’t do. The Register has been pushing for the government to make OS’s data more freely available. A key point they make is:

The government argues that businesses and individuals who use the data should contribute to the cost of collecting it. The counter-argument is damning: Ordnance Survey makes a profit for the Treasury, but locking down its maps suffocates a potential boom in Geographic Information Services and other businesses, that would funnel much more back into the economy.

The government should be using Ordnance Survey as a tool to unlock some new economic potential (see this brilliant idea as just one use of the data that relies on it being cheap), not as part of a short-term fire sale.

Thirdly and finally, Forestry Commission land. If this isn’t a shortsighted idea, I don’t know what is. Selling it off for commercial gain means only one thing – the environment won’t be the main concern any more. We’re unlikely to see the land stripped for palm oil but any commercial use will conflict with the current limits on what Forestry Commission land can be used for.

The article has the whiff of being leaked by a naive junior government minister who hasn’t thought any of these things through yet.

Let’s hope the rest of Monday’s pre-budget report isn’t so half-baked.

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