The importance of a moment to account

The Institute of Chartered Accountants plead for reform of public accounting in the midst of economic flux

Sustainability, transparency and reform have been held up as the shining beacons of our economic recovery. Our politics, our budget and our ethos are placed back on drawing boards across the country in the quest to return the UK to its heyday of steady economic growth. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, however, offer some brief words of caution.

Whilst our wild ideas about the importance of spending or cuts, the role of elections and representation and the significance public or private sector investment are important, there are some basic changes which have to happen before they can make lasting change. We have to set our ideological angst and meta-debates to one side for a moment, and take a look at the books.

Architects of international financial reporting standards have responded to the crisis by reforming the information and presentation of accounts across the world. Britain seems to lack the political will to get behind this change, yet improved financial reporting would make the nation’s accounts more consistent with those of the fifty countries which have already adopted the new standards laid out by the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board. Greater consistency and greater comparability gained from international financial reporting will help on the road to recovery by increasing confidence and transparency.

Better financial training for all public servants is an intrinsic part of this process, the ICAEW argue. This training, with a long-term change in attitude towards our accounts, will help to improve understandings of public sector finances and, with that, understanding of policy. Once our public servants, and the international community, can access accounts more consistently, we can report with greater confidence on the state of the economy.

Sustainability, transparency and reform have a right to be seen as a beacon of recovery. Passionate debates on the right course for the country need to be had but, for the sake of our understanding and the happiness of our accountants, let's take a look at the books first.

Dusty ledgers, sadly no longer the tools of accounting. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.