Should they stay or should they go? That's the choice 1,450 Southampton-based Ordnance Survey employees are facing in the wake of Daily Echo revelations that the mapping agency is looking to shed 300 jobs...

WHEN it comes to maps, anywhere in the world, one name reigns supreme.

As the British Empire unfolded around the globe, Ordnance Survey went with it, building a reputation for scrupulous accuracy and comprehensive coverage unmatched anywhere.

Now bosses of the historic government offshoot, founded in 1791, are wrestling with a technological age where the world is smaller and the competition growing fiercer by the day.

Yesterday, that competition bit deep in Southampton, which has always been proud to call itself the home of Ordnance Survey.

One of the city's biggest employers, with 1,450 of its 1,850 staff based in the Romsey Road, Maybush, HQ - OS bosses have said 300 employees have got to go.

Anyone in doubt about the significance of the move need only attempt some simple arithmetic to see that's one in six of the national workforce or around one in five of the Southampton staff - all gone by March 2004.

This, says the agency, is the inevitable result of the digital age. As technology develops, the quaint old world of map-making has gone. Satellite images beamed around the Earth have revolutionised the business and, when combined with the rapid growth of online map use, it means OS is now engaged in one of the most technological businesses on the planet.

"Our staffing levels have more than halved in 30 years but we now produce more than ever before," said an OS spokesman.

The figures back him up. In 1970 the mapping agency employed 4,700 people. Today the figure stands at 1,850 but now it is set to shrink by a further 300. OS has also refused to rule out further job cuts.

Chief executive Vanessa Lawrence said: "The planned reductions are a recognition that technological change means we can enhance quality and improve customer service with fewer staff."

It's a story as old as the Luddites, but for those caught in the middle it can be as painful as ever.

But, staff in the Maybush HQ and in field offices scattered across the country, are not facing the chop immediately. The mapping agency is rolling out a programme of voluntary redundancies, in consultation with trade unions.

The nature of technology means, though, that only those whose skills are out of date or not needed in the digital age will be allowed to walk away with "the best possible civil service terms".

Insiders say the redundancy packages are attractive, and people "will be falling over themselves" to take up the offers.

Exactly who goes and who stays is due to be thrashed out at a series of meetings between the agency and trade unions.

Emily Boase, negotiator for skilled workers and managers union Prospect - the biggest union represented at the agency - said the news had not come as a shock.

"There had been indications that due to the introduction of new technology and the need to cost save they would need to make reductions," she said.

Unions were going to focus on whittling down the numbers set to depart and helping those that do find new work.

She said: "We don't yet have a detailed analysis of where the numbers are going to come from. Our main objective is going to be to reduce the number and help staff get other jobs with local employers."

Voluntary redundancies are not new at OS. The agency is actually resurrecting a previous programme of voluntary redundancy, which saw staff leaving at a steady trickle.

That programme, which ended two years ago, means the agency now has few pensionable age employees, making it ever harder to find willing volunteers.

The news of job losses will also further fuel long-standing rumours that Ordnance Survey is to be sold.

The shadow of privatisation has long hung over the agency, especially since it posted the first ever profit in its 211-year history - £12m, in 2001.

As far back as 30 years ago, civil service unions have been convinced privatisation was in the air. The Tory party, too, have hankered to sell it off in the past, with former leader William Hague making the idea a plank of his election manifesto.

But a recent independent review, carried out every five years, rejected privatisation while calling for OS to be given more freedom to develop commercial initiatives.

Short of a change of government, the service is not due to be considered for privatisation until 2006/7. None of this troubles the chief executive.

Ms Lawrence has said: "Whether the OS is privatised or not is a matter for the government of the day. Such issues are for politicians to debate, not for us to determine.

"My job is to run the OS as efficiently and effectively as possible, whatever the ownership."