Can accountants save the planet?

The heroes in pinstripe.

One striking thing that happened at the 2012 UN Earth Summit in Rio was hearing that it was the accountants that will save the planet. It also resonated in one of the most important themes I heard at Rio: valuation, measurement and disclosure. This speaks to the huge role accountants have to play in the creation of a more sustainable world - and it was great to see the profession at Rio in the form of IIRC, the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability Project and ICAEW.

This theme was one of a number of that buzzed at the summit and side events including: natural capital; the discussions around articulating a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs); and the much more prominent role business had this time (so different from 1992). There also seemed to be a tacit question floating around about what the role of governments is; for this was not the world uniting in common cause for a higher purpose, this was c.190 separate nations gathering with very different agendas and interests.

These governments are struggling to address global issues that require them to aspire to an international public interest and yield a certain amount of sovereignty. It requires not compromise, a descent to the lowest common denominator, which is what we got, but consensus. This involves giving up some national interest for a greater good. Are the institutions of government and international governance capable of delivering that? The public doesn’t think so. We are witnessing a collapse in public trust in such institutions.  Just look at the latest Edelman Trust report where the most trusted of our institutions commands only 50 per cent of public trust. Respected commentators such as Naill Fergusson and Diane Coyle have written and spoken convincingly on the need for institutions that are fit for purpose.

But the success of any sustainable programme is predicated on successful measurement, valuation and disclosure. If we cannot measure the impact organisations are having on the natural environment then we certainly won’t be able to do anything about it. We need to value that impact not to put a price on nature in order to put it up for sale, but to show its value to stop it being economically invisible. This is the language of business and to engage business we need to speak its language. Reporting is important not just as disclosure to stakeholders and shareholders but, more importantly, in as management information to enable managers to make informed decisions. These are the functions that I would argue are the domain of accountants.

The management and public accounts create an image of the business that shapes perception and decision-making. Like any representation, these are not an unimpeded view; they include certain information and leave other things out, presenting a certain reality. So including other information, about environmental impact for example, will drive different understanding and a new reality and other decisions. That’s why accountants are important.

Richard Spencer is the Head of Sustainability for ICAEW

Accountants are important. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability ICAEW

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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