How do you price the priceless?

When a nation decides to count assets as well as incomes, it has to face some difficult questions.

A real investment property; could do with some renovation. Credit: Getty Images

The Financial Times has a report today on the efforts of the Treasury to publish the "whole-of-government accounts" for the first time. The usual practice for governments is to focus on income and outgoings, paying little heed to their assets and liabilities, but the fate of Greece put an end to that practice.

The problem with totting up everything a government owns is that their portfolio is rather different from that of, say, Barclays or John Lewis. They own things like Stonehenge:

Although unthinkable in practice, it would in theory be possible to price the site as if it were a business put up for sale, Mr Thurley [the head of English Heritage] admits. More than 1m people visit each year, with adults paying £7.50 each. “If we were to put Stonehenge on the market, we would probably sell it for a very large sum of money,” he says.

But applying a theme-park template would hardly have done justice to the ancient mystery of the stones, nor to English Heritage’s stewardship role. The fact that Stonehenge would have been ultimately lumped into an accounting category called “furniture, fittings and other” in the whole of government accounts would only have added insult to injury.

In the end, English Heritage kept Stonehenge and the vast majority of its treasures off the UK’s balance sheet by arguing that the cost of carrying out the valuation would have been out of all proportion to the benefits of disclosure. A similar approach has been taken by big museums and galleries, not to mention the Ministry of Defence, which declined to put a price tag on historical items such as the Enigma Machine, the second world war code-breaking device.

Thurley accepts that would be some benefits to English Heritage for valuing their less archaeological properties, since it would allow them to compare their performance against listed property management companies. It is hard to think of an acceptable use of valuing Stonehenge, though; the first chancellor to put the site up as collateral for a loan would probably be the last as well.