ICAEW chart of the week: Olympinflation

Our chart this week shows how the Summer Olympics has grown from 43 medal events and 241 competitors in Athens in 1896 to 339 medal events attracting 11,326 competitors in the Tokyo Summer Olympics this year.

Olympinflation chart comprising columnsfor number of medal events and a line for competitors:

Medal events: 43 in 1896 to 95 in 1904 to 102 in 1912 to 156 in 1920 to 109 in 1928 to 129 in 1936 to 149 in 1852 to 150 in 1960 to 172 in 1968 to 198 in 1976 to 231 in 1984 to 257 in 1992 to 271 in 1996 to 300 in 200 to 302 in 2008 to 306 in 2016 to 339 in 2021.

Competitors from 241 in 1896 up to 3,089 in 1924 down to 1,332 in 1932 up to 3,936 in 1936 up to 4,955 in 1952 down to 3,314 in 1956 up to 7,134 in 1972 down to 5,179 in 1980 up to 10,651 in 2000 down to 10,625 in 2004 up to 10,942 in 2008 down to 10,768 in 2012 up to 11,326 in 2021.

Our chart this week shows how the Summer Olympics has grown from 43 medal events and 241 competitors in Athens in 1896 to 339 medal events attracting 11,326 competitors in the Tokyo Summer Olympics this year.

The arrival of the Summer Olympics has turned many of us into experts in obscure sports that never normally crossed our minds, as well as thrilling us with seeing the world’s top athletes compete to be the best in the sports we love. The sheer scale of sporting activity is immense as it turns a global audience into athletic couch potatoes over a period of two weeks every four years – or five on this particular occasion with the delay to 2021 because of the pandemic. Despite the absence of spectators, so far the Games have been gripping as tiny margins have determined who gets gold, silver or bronze or who comes home without a medal, but still the privilege of being an Olympian.

Our chart this week illustrates how the Summer Olympics has grown in scale over time. The Tokyo Summer Olympic Games continued the upward path in the number of medal events, with 339 medal events in 50 sporting disciplines from 33 sports and 11,326 competitors from 206 nations. This compares with 43 medal events in 10 disciplines from 9 sports in the first Summer Olympiad in 1896, involving just 241 competitors from 14 nations.

New sports this year include karate, skateboarding, sports climbing, surfing and (the return of) baseball/softball, providing new opportunities for competitors to show their talents to the world, and for the rest of us to add to our fleeting knowledge of what it takes to ride a skateboard in an organised format or the technicalities of riding a wave to score points. These add to the existing sports of aquatics, archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian, fencing, field hockey, football, golf, gymnastics, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, rugby sevens, sailing, shooting, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, triathlon, volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling.

The Olympics will be over all too soon, leaving us bereft and demanding more. Fortunately, the Paralympics will be starting on 24 August with 540 medal events in 22 sports to keep us glued to our screens this summer.

Chart of the week will be taking its customary break during August and will return in September, while the Summer Olympics will hopefully be taking a shorter than usual three-year break to return to schedule with the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Shadow Chief Secretary joins Fabians-ICAEW roundtable

ICAEW and the Fabian Society recently held a joint roundtable event on how a future Labour government can bring a long-term approach to public sector financial management, infrastructure and investment, amidst a challenging position for the public finances.

While the next General Election is not scheduled until 2024, Labour shadow ministers are already starting to think about how they can both deliver on their policy objectives and ensure sustainable public finances at the same time.

As current and previous administrations have discovered, getting the ‘wiring’ of government right is essential to achieving progress and a joint ICAEW-Fabian Society roundtable on 15 July 2021 explored the challenges with members of Labour’s shadow team including Bridget Phillipson, Shadow Chief Secretary to HM Treasury, and policy experts from academia, ICAEW, the Institute for Government and Reform.

The discussion was focused on how to ensure a joined-up, long-termist approach to government, including strategy and foresight, outcomes and delivery, digital, data and service transformation, financial management, audit and procurement, and infrastructure, investment and major projects. The need for a more effective centre of government to drive policy outcomes at the same time as devolving more powers was a key theme, as was the contribution that effective public audit can make to improving the quality of decision making within government.

The challenges facing any future Labour government are exacerbated not only by the huge amounts of borrowing used to finance the UK’s response to COVID-19, but by public finances that were already challenged by the long-term financial consequences for pensions, health care and social care of more people living for longer. Higher gearing in the public balance sheet increases the vulnerability of the public finances to future economic shocks.

Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of the Fabian Society, commented: “The Fabian Society hopes that this early debate on how to bring a long-termist, coordinated perspective to the centre of government will help equip Labour to critique government inaction; and to start to think through ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ the party wants to achieve if it wins back power. Developing plans to reform the centre of government can also help opposition parties demonstrate their credibility, as the Conservatives proved in 2010 with the Office for Budget Responsibility.”

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “ICAEW believes in engaging across the political spectrum on the importance of strong financial management, high quality financial reporting and a comprehensive fiscal strategy to deliver value for money and sustainable public finances over the long-term. We hope that this event will have helped to advance thinking on how to tackle the many significant challenges facing the UK public sector and public finances in uncertain times.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Tokyo Olympics cost update

Cost overruns have been a recurring feature of the modern Olympic movement, but the pandemic has blown the doors off the budget for the Tokyo games.

Tokyo Olympics cost update - column chart:

Budget v1 £5.2bn
Budget v2 £9.0bn
Budget v3 £9.0bn
Budget v4 £9.4bn (venues £4.7bn, Games £2.9bn, marketing and general £1.6bn)
Budget v5 £11.0bn (venues £5.4bn, Games £4.0bn, marketing and general £1.6bn) + Outside the Games costs £12.5bn = 
Estimate of £23.5bn (Organising Committee £4.7bn, Tokyo Metropolitan Government £10.2bn, Government of Japan £8.6bn)

Hosting an Olympics is a costly affair, with headlines about budget overruns a regular occurrence in recent decades. The Tokyo Olympics is no exception, with the latest official budget for the rescheduled 2020 Olympic Games rising to ¥1.7tn ($15.4bn or £11.0bn) compared with an original budget of $7.5bn or £5.2bn. 

Of course, nobody expected the original budget from Tokyo’s bid in 2013 to be the final result, but annual budgets since 2017 have shown a gradual rise in both the cost of running the Olympic Games and the cost of the venues. This would be unsurprising to those that remember the 2012 London Olympics, where the costs significantly exceeded the estimated overheads set out in the original bid.

The version two budget established in December 2017 of £9.0bn, comprising £4.7bn for venues, £2.4bn for running the Games and £1.9bn for marketing, communications and general expenditures was substantially maintained in version three with offsetting increases and decreases in different parts of the budget. Additional income allowed the organisers to add in a contingency to increase the budget to £9.2bn by 2019, with the budget for venues still £4.7bn, running the Games up to £2.9bn (including the contingency) and marketing and general expenditures down slightly to £1.6bn.

The pandemic drove a big jump in the version five of the budget, put together six months after the 2020 Games were supposed to have taken place. The budget for venues (permanent, temporary and energy costs) went up to £5.4bn, up from £4.7bn in previous budgets, while the version five budget for running the Games (transport, security, technology and operations) of £4.0bn is a third more than the 2019 estimate of £2.9bn and more than 60% higher than the 2017 estimate of £2.4bn, with marketing and general expenditures still at £1.6bn.

Not shown in the chart is the expected revenue that was anticipated to fund the Tokyo Organising Committee’s share of costs of £4.7bn, comprising £0.6bn from the International Olympic Committee (the IOC, which owns the global broadcasting rights), £2.8bn from sponsorship and licencing, £0.6bn from ticket sales and £0.7bn in other revenues. With tickets being refunded to spectators who can no longer attend, this leaves a hole in the Organising Committee’s finances that will need to be funded either by the IOC or by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

The chart also illustrates how the official budget for the Olympics is not the full story, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Japanese Government incurring a further £12.5bn or so in costs outside the Games, in addition to their already substantial contributions to the cost of venue construction. There are some disputes about these numbers as their spending include ‘legacy’ investments in public infrastructure that could be argued should not be counted, in addition to costs with a direct causal linkage, such as policing and security costs away from Olympic venues. The £12.5bn amount is based on AP reporting of a Japan Board of Audit report from 2019, but recent reports in the Japanese press have suggested the costs to the metropolitan and national governments of hosting the Olympics could end up being even larger.

While the pandemic was not foreseeable back in 2013 when Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, the budgetary tale highlights the importance of building in headroom for changes as well as considering contingencies when setting budgets. For example, there was insurance cover to deal with the risk of an event like the pandemic leading to a cancellation of the Games, but the insured amounts were insufficient to cover the full losses of a complete cancellation. This is no doubt one (but not the only) reason why the organisers are going ahead despite everything that has happened.

Fortunately for those of us who like watching sport on our screens, the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games are going ahead after all and it is the performance of the athletes that will be our main focus for the next few weeks. We wish them the best of luck!

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Public debt hits £2.2tn as Budget delay rumours swirl

A June deficit of £22.8bn resulted in public sector net debt reaching £2,218.2bn or 99.7% of GDP at the end of the first quarter of the 2021-22 fiscal year, fuelling speculation that the Chancellor may delay the Autumn Budget and departmental spending reviews.

The latest public sector finances released on Wednesday 21 July reported a deficit of £22.8bn for June 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances, albeit at a reduced rate. This is an improvement from the £28.2bn reported for the same month last year during the first lockdown but was still significantly higher than the £7.0bn reported for June 2019.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,218.2bn or 99.7% of GDP, an increase of £80.8bn since March 2021 and £420.5bn higher than March 2020 just fifteen months ago.

Cumulative receipts in the first three months of the financial year of £201.6bn were £29.5bn or 17% higher than a year previously, but this was only £6.4bn or 3% above the level seen a year before that in the first quarter of 2019-20. At the same time cumulative expenditure of £243.4bn was £26.0bn or 10% lower than the first three months of 2020-21, but £51.6bn or 27% higher than the same period two years ago.

The effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts drove a jump in interest costs, which at £18.1bn in the quarter to June 2021 were £6.0bn or 50% higher than Q1 in 2020-21, albeit this was still £0.4bn or 2% lower than the quarter ended 30 June 2019 despite much higher levels of debt. 

Net public sector investment was slightly lower than last year with £9.6bn invested in the three months to June, down £0.3bn or 3% from a year before but up £1.7bn or 22% from two years ago. This combined to produce a cumulative deficit for the first three months of the 2021-22 financial year of £69.5bn, £49.8bn or 42% below that of the same period a year previously, but up £46.5bn or 202% from the first quarter of the 2019-20 financial year.

Debt movements reflected £11.3bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit for the quarter, principally to fund coronavirus loans to businesses. Public sector net debt of £2,218.2bn is £245.5bn or 12% higher than a year earlier and £438.2bn or 25% higher than in June 2019.

The Office for National Statistics revised the reported deficit for the year ended 31 March 2020 down by £1.5bn from £299.2bn to £297.7bn, still a peacetime record. The final total is still expected to exceed £300bn as the ONS has yet to include in the order of £27bn of bad debts on COVID-related lending in this number. Estimates will be refined further over the next few months.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Public sector net debt has risen by £420bn since the first lockdown in March 2020, making the public finances more vulnerable to changes in interest rates and reducing the fiscal headroom available to the Chancellor as he seeks to navigate the economy out of the pandemic.

“Rumours that Rishi Sunak is considering cutting investment plans and delaying the Budget and departmental Spending Reviews are concerning. It is important that the baby of borrowing sensibly to fund much-needed investment in infrastructure is not thrown out with the bathwater of post-pandemic spending restraint.

“Central and local government desperately need budget certainty so they can plan, even if there are some adjustments next year when we all hope the pandemic will have run its course. The last full Spending Review was in 2015; it’s important that we end the cycle of deferral and delay and restore financial discipline to the government’s budgeting.”

Public sector finances 2021-22: three months to 30 June 2021

3 months to
June 2021
Variance vs
prior year
Variance vs
two years ago
£bn£bn%£bn%
Receipts201.629.5+17%6.4+3%
Expenditure(243.4)26.0-10%(51.6)+27%
Interest(18.1)(6.0)+50%0.4-2%
Net investment(9.6)0.3-3%(1.7)+22%
Deficit(69.5)49.8-42%(46.5)+202%
Other borrowing(11.3)44.4-80%(19.7)-235%
Change in net debt(80.8)94.2-54%(66.2)+453%
Public sector net debt2,218.2245.5+12%438.2+25%
Public sector net debt / GDP99.7%6.3%+7%19.4%+24%
Public sector finances 2021-22: three months to 30 June 2021

Public sector finances 2021-22: fiscal deficit by month


Receipts
Expend-
iture

Interest
Net
investment

Deficit
£bn£bn£bn£bn£bn
April 202166.2(82.3)(4.8)(5.2)(26.1)
May 202166.3(80.8)(4.5)(1.6)(20.6)
June 202169.1(80.3)(8.8)(2.8)(22.7)
Cumulative to June 2021201.6(243.4)(18.1)(9.6)(69.5)
Public sector finances 2021-22: fiscal deficit by month

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit for April 2021 from £29.1bn to £26.1bn, for May 2021 from £24.3bn to £20.6bn and for the twelve months ended 31 March 2021 from £299.2bn to £297.7bn.

For further information, read the public sector finances release for June 2021.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK-EU financial settlement update

This week’s chart is on the UK-EU withdrawal agreement financial settlement. Perhaps surprisingly given recent press coverage, ICAEW’s analysis is that it remains roughly unchanged from the Treasury’s 2018 estimate.

Chart on UK-EU financial settlement.

HM Treasury estimate from 2018 of £39bn less £16bn transition = post-transition net payments of £23bn (£19bn approved expenditure not paid + £11bn pension obligations, less £7bn share of EU assets).

Changes since 2018: -£2bn approved expenditure not paid +£2bn pension obligations.

EU 2020 accounts £42bn less forecast UK receipts of £14bn less EIB and other of £bn = Post-transition net payments £23bn (£17bn approved expenditure not paid + £13bn pension obligations - £7bn share of EU assets).

The €47.5bn (£42bn) receivable from the UK included in the recently published EU 2020 accounts caused a kerfuffle last week, as excitement levels grew over what turns out to be a pretty much unchanged estimate for the post-transition element of the UK-EU financial settlement.

ICAEW’s chart of the week attempts to reconcile the £39bn estimate calculated by HM Treasury back in 2018 with the €47.5bn (£42bn) receivable recorded by the EU in its financial statements on 31 December 2020, the last day of the transition period. Perhaps surprisingly, given recent press coverage, ICAEW’s analysis is that the estimate for the post-transition element of the settlement of £23bn remains unchanged overall.

Much of the confusion arises because the £39bn estimate made by HM Treasury in 2018 was a net number, reflecting forecasts of gross payments to the EU by the UK government less anticipated payments by the EU and EU-related institutions back to the UK.

The chart starts by analysing the £39bn estimate into its four main component parts: Net transition payments of £16bn, the UK’s share of approved expenditure not yet paid of £19bn and pension contributions of £11bn less the UK’s share of EU assets of £7bn, with the last three elements amounting to a net £23bn amount to be settled in the post-transition period.

The transition element of £16bn is now in the past, reflecting membership dues for the then anticipated transition period of 1 April 2019 to 31 December 2020 less money coming back from the EU to the UK over the same period. In the end, this turned out to be a couple of extensions in the UK’s period of membership that resulted in a shorter transition period from 1 February to 31 December 2020 – a switch in classification for some of the £16bn from post-EU transition payments to pre-EU exit net membership cost.

The UK’s share of approved expenditure not yet paid of £19bn was also a net number, reflecting a gross amount payable to the EU for ongoing programmes at the end of 2020 less amounts coming back the other way. The OBR has been working to an estimate of €296bn for the balance of approved expenditure not paid (also known as reste á liquider or RAL), which compares with €294bn in the notes to the EU accounts once adjustments were applied to the overall total of €303bn that the EU was committed to spend as at 31 December 2020. 

The calculated receivable of €35bn or £31bn does not reflect an estimated £14bn of payments by the EU to UK participants in these programmes, for example to British universities and research institutions, giving rise to a net amount in the order of £17bn, a couple of billion below the original estimate.

This slightly smaller net outflow is offset by a larger pension liability in the EU accounts, driven by a lower discount rate than originally anticipated. The UK’s €14bn or £13bn share of the €116bn liability is therefore higher than the €12bn or £11bn share of a €96bn liability that was previously forecast. In practice, the value attributable to this balance will change over time given that payments are expected to continue to 2064 or later.

Another area where the EU accounts do not provide the complete story is in the UK’s share of assets it expects to receive back as part of the withdrawal agreement. The €2bn amount in the EU accounts primarily relates to the UK’s share of fines, but it excludes the return of UK shareholdings in EU-related institutions that are owned by member states outside of the scope of the EU consolidated financial statements. Of the £5bn in this category, €3.5bn or £3bn relates to the return of the UK’s share capital in the European Investment Bank.

Despite the numbers being pretty much as expected, there still remains some uncertainty concerning the £23bn post-transition estimate in relation to the calculation of the amounts coming back to the UK, and HM Treasury and the OBR will no doubt continue to refine these estimates over the next few months and years.

The financial settlement is not the end of the UK’s financial engagement with the EU as the government has agreed to participate in a number of EU programmes from 1 January 2021 onwards, for example in Horizon pan-European scientific research, as well as working with the EU on international development programmes funded from the aid budget.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: OBR climate change scenarios

Our chart this week is on the OBR Fiscal Risks Report, highlighting how delaying action to achieve net zero could double the cost to the public finances compared with acting more quickly.

Chart show public debt change in 2150-51 as % of GDP for different scenarios: Investment switch and motoring tax -12%, early action high productivity +10%, early action scenario +21%, early action low productivity +32%, late action scenario +43%, unmitigated climate change +38%. The final column for unmitigated climate change also has the public debt change in 2100-01% of +161%.

With two ‘once in a century’ events in less than two decades adding more than £1tn to public debt, it is unsurprising that the OBR’s Fiscal Risks Report published earlier this week places much more emphasis than previous reports on the potential for catastrophic risks, whether that be from further pandemics, major wars, climate change or cyberattacks.

The report focuses on three particular risks: the coronavirus pandemic, the cost of debt, and climate change, with the latter being the subject of the #icaewchartoftheweek. 

The OBR distinguishes fiscal risks from climate change between those stemming from global warming itself (physical risks) and those relating to the move to a low-carbon economy, including the policies to achieve that (transition risks). In unmitigated climate change scenarios, the physical risks dominate, whereas the more that is done to mitigate global warming by reducing emissions, the more important transition risks become. 

The chart illustrates two main scenarios explored by the OBR – an early action scenario where the UK and other governments around the world push forward with plans to achieve net zero by 2050 and a late action scenario where the UK government delays taking actions to decarbonise the economy. The chart also shows three variants on the early action scenario depending on whether decarbonisation boosts or damages productivity or where investment is switched from other areas and motoring taxes retained. 

In the early action scenario, the OBR estimate that public sector debt would rise by 21% of GDP by 2050-51 (equivalent to £469bn in current prices) as a consequence of lost fuel duties and other taxes of 19%, additional spending of 6%, indirect economic effects of 6% and interest on borrowing of 4% less 14% from carbon taxes imposed to incentivise the shift to net zero. 

The high productivity variant is similar in terms of costs and carbon tax receipts, but with indirect economic effects contributing additional tax receipts with a consequent reduction in borrowing costs over 30 years, resulting in net additional debt of 10% of GDP. The low productivity variant assumes the reverse with lower tax receipts and a smaller economy combining to increase the net increase in public debt to 32% of GDP. The other variant identified by the OBR has the effect of reducing public debt, where investment in decarbonisation is funded by cutting other public investment plans and existing motoring taxes are shifted onto electric cars to retain that source of income to the exchequer.

A key finding in the report is that delaying action would cost a lot more than moving early with public sector debt rising by 43% in 2050-51, more than double the early action scenario, as it would require a more radical intervention costing more and resulting in more adverse economic effects.

Ironically, the OBR estimates that doing nothing would have a smaller impact on net debt by 2050-51 than the late action scenario as decarbonisation costs would not be incurred. However, the OBR estimates that unmitigated climate change would have a significant impact for the rest of the century, with public debt potentially rising to 289% of GDP by 2100-01 if action is not taken to prevent temperatures rising around the world.

For more information read the OBR Fiscal Risks Report.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Local authorities need to invest in finance teams

Alison Ring, ICAEW director for public sector, tells Room 151 that local audit reform is not enough on its own.

Alison Ring, ICAEW director for public sector, recently contributed an article to Room 151, an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority section 151 and other senior officers.

Reforms mean local government will soon see a new audit regulator, but investing in local government finance teams and better reporting are priorities too.

The government’s decision to set up a dedicated local audit unit within the new Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA) addresses one of the key recommendations of the Redmond Review – that there be a ‘system leader’ for local audit, bringing together many of the different aspects of audit regulation currently dispersed across a variety of bodies, including ICAEW.

Nevertheless, ARGA has a big challenge on its hands.

Problems

The National Audit Office reported recently that 55% of local authorities in England missed the deadline to obtain an audit opinion on their 2019-20 financial statements, despite an extension of four months to take account of the pandemic. While there were significant practical issues facing both local authority finance teams and audit firms that contributed to these delays, they are symptomatic of wider problems in the local audit market and in the preparation of local authority financial statements.

Local audit in England relies on a small pool of eight firms to audit hundreds of NHS trusts and local authorities within a short time frame each year. Audit firms struggle to find sufficient qualified and experienced individuals to deliver local authority audits, an issue that will only grow as the existing cohort of experienced auditors approaches retirement over the coming decade.

Even with the additional £15m in funding provided this year by the government, audit firms highlight how the risk profile of many councils has increased in recent years as reserves have declined and balance sheets have weakened, with many councils borrowing to invest in commercial activities. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the financial position of councils even further.

At the same time, more intensive regulation has – quite rightly – put pressure on audit teams to improve the quality of their work, but that has cost implications too, with firms expressing concern about the viability of their local audit practices. There is a real risk that one, or more, firms could withdraw from the market, reducing competition and putting even more pressure on the remaining firms.

There are also significant barriers to entry, starting with a requirement for audit partners to qualify as a key audit partner in addition to being a registered auditor, a requirement specific to the local audit market and not applicable to other sectors requiring equal or much greater sector-specific knowledge and expertise.

This is an obstacle to new firms considering bidding for local audit contracts, even where they have audit partners with experience that would make them eligible to apply and the ability to train and recruit staff with the necessary capabilities. The limited number of key audit partners in each individual firm also makes it more difficult to manage multiple audits within the short time frames needed to achieve audit deadlines.

Stabilising the local audit market and working with the government to ensure there is a viable pool of expertise available to carry out quality audits will be one of the first items on the ARGA agenda.

Priorities

However, audit reform is only part of the story. There is also a need to invest in local authority finance teams and in making the local authority finance profession an attractive career choice. Local authorities need to place a higher priority on the importance of producing high-quality financial statements that meet best practice and how doing so can increase financial understanding among both officers and councillors. Success in this area would also benefit local taxpayers’ understanding of and ability to scrutinise spending decisions, improving accountability and transparency.

There also needs to be investment in the quality of the underlying financial records and the supporting working papers provided to external auditors – a cause of delays in some audits. Not as sexy as many of the budget proposals that go to councillors for approval, but we know that poor financial controls and a lack of financial understanding by decision-makers and those to whom they are accountable can cost a lot more in the long run.

Unfortunately, far too many local authorities appear to treat their annual financial statements and the audit as a compliance exercise, something to be ‘got through’ rather than an opportunity to give a full account of how well they have stewarded public resources on behalf of residents.

Poorly formatted and difficult to read, too many council financial reports and accounts are seemingly designed for depositing in the round filing cabinet, rather than taking their place alongside flagship reports. Such reports are often of much less importance and priority than the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money spent on delivering local services or, in some cases, that have been wagered in speculative commercial investments.

I believe that the new regulator will need to look beyond the audit firms and engage with local authorities and their finance teams to demand and encourage improvements. Although audit firms can, and do, insist on changes to financial statements where they fail to comply with accounting standards or are actively misleading, they can’t insist local authorities follow best practice or that they invest in making the financial statements understandable to elected representatives and to the public. There is a role for the new regulator to bring up reporting quality across the sector.

It is important to realise that the proposed new standardised statement of service information and costs won’t be enough on its own. Readers need to be able to understand the wider financial position of each local authority, such as the level of usable reserves and balance sheet risks—and that requires investment in the entire annual report and accounts to make the financial information presented more understandable.

High standard

The overall package of reforms is positive: a new system leader for local audit and a rationalisation of the regulatory environment; a new audited statement of service information and costs to enable budgets and spending to be compared; a review of audit requirements for smaller bodies; auditors to provide an annual report to full council; an independent member with financial expertise on council audit committees; and a willingness to look again at audit deadlines.

But we should not forget that external audit comes at the end of the process and that solving the problems in the local audit market will only go so far.

Ultimately these reforms will only be successful if the financial statements subject to audit are of a high standard in the first place. That means greater investment in finance teams and—most importantly—council leaders and officers placing a higher priority on the quality and understandability of the financial information they produce.

This article was originally published in Room 151, an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority section 151 and other senior officers covering treasury, strategic finance, funding, resources and risk, and subsequently published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK population of 67.1m

This week’s chart covers the pre-census population estimate of 67.1m for June 2020 just released by the Office for National Statistics. Do more deaths, fewer births and returning migrants mean the 2021 number will be smaller?

Map of UK with nations and regions in different shades and labels with populations: Scotland 5.5m, North East 2.7m, Yorkshire and the Humber 5.5m, East Midlands 4.8m, East of England 6.3m, London 9.0m, South East 9.2m, South West 5.7m, West Midlands Region 5.9m, Wales 3.2m, North West 7.4m, Northern Ireland 1.9m.

ICAEW’s chart of the week is based on the UK population estimate for June 2020 released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on 25 June 2021, which estimates that there were 67.1m people living in the UK last summer. This is the last estimate before the March 2021 census that should provide a more accurate count of the population – potentially leading to revisions to this and previous estimates over the last few years.

The population estimate comprises 56.5m people in England, 5.5m in Scotland, 3.2m in Wales and 1.9m in Northern Ireland. Within England there were 9.0m in London, 9.2m in the South East, 6.3m in the East of England, 4.8m in East Midlands, 5.5m in Yorkshire & the Humber, 2.7m in the North East, 7.4m in North West (including 2.8m in Greater Manchester), 5.9m in the West Midlands (including 2.9m in the West Midlands city-region), and 5.7m in the South West.

The median age for the population was 40.4 years old, with 19.8m aged between 0 and 24, 21.8m from 25 to 49, 19.7m from 50 to 74 and 5.8m aged 75 or more.

The ONS reports that the population increased by 284,000 or 0.43% from 2019 comprising a ‘natural’ increase of 32,000 (701,000 births less 669,000 deaths), net migration of 247,000 (immigration of 622,000 less emigration 375,000) and other movements of 5,000. This is a fall from the 361,000 increase seen in the previous year, primarily because of the coronavirus pandemic from mid-March 2020 to June 2020, when deaths increased and migration went into reverse.

The big question is whether the population may actually shrink when the 2021 census is reported, with deaths from the second and third waves of the pandemic, a further decline in the birth rate and a potential outflow of migrants combining to reduce the population for the first time since 1982.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Banknotes in circulation

Our chart illustrates how banknotes in circulation have grown during lockdown despite a decline in cash usage. Will the new £50 note launched on Wednesday cause a further rise?

Chart showing steady growth in banknotes in circulation from £26bn in 2001 to £69bn in 2017, followed by three flat years including £70bn in 2019, before a jump to £80bn in 2021. The latter comprised £18bn in £50 notes, £45bn in £20 notes, £15bn in £10 notes and £2bn in £5 notes.

At 28 February 2021, there were 357m paper £50 notes worth £18bn, 2,237m polymer and paper £20 notes worth £45bn, 1,540m polymer £10 notes worth £15bn and 407m polymer £5 notes worth £2bn – a total of £80bn in circulation. This excludes around £8bn in Scottish and Northern Irish banknotes and in the order of £5bn in coins.

With around 60m people in England and Wales (as Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own banknotes), this is equivalent to approximately six £50 notes, 37 £20 notes, 26 £10 notes and seven £5 notes per person. Of course, not all of these are in purses, wallets or stuck down the back of sofas – many live in cash drawers and safes at high street banks, retailers and other businesses, as well as a certain proportion that have migrated around the world.

There has been some speculation about the reasons for the jump in cash holdings during the pandemic, which appears counterintuitive given the significant decline in cash usage as contactless and online payments have become more popular. Part of this may be hoarding in the context of a national emergency, while others have speculated that criminal enterprises have struggled to launder cash at a time when many retail businesses have been closed. Another potential driver is the crossover between the old and new £20 notes, with the polymer £20 launched in February 2020 while the paper note it replaced is still in circulation. With the announcement that both £20 and £50 paper notes will be withdrawn in September 2022, there is likely to be a flood of cash coming back to the Bank of England next year.

The new Turing £50 note completes the changeover from paper to polymer, joining the Churchill £5, the Austen £10 and the Turner £20 polymer notes. The Adam Smith £20 note and the Boulton-Watt £50 note are the last paper notes still in circulation.

Speaking at Bletchley Park, where Turing carried out his famous codebreaking work, Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said: “Our banknotes celebrate some of our country’s most important historical figures. That’s why I am delighted that Alan Turing features on the new polymer £50 note. Having undertaken remarkable codebreaking work here at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, he went on to pioneer work on early computers, as well as making some ground-breaking discoveries in the field of developmental biology. He was also gay and was treated appallingly as a result. Placing him on this new banknote is a recognition of his contributions to our society, and a celebration of his remarkable life.”

More information on banknotes is available from the Bank of England.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Fiscal deficit of £24.3bn in May as COVID spending trends downward

COVID-related spending continues to drive borrowing even as receipts approach pre-pandemic levels, with debt up by £24.9bn to £2,195.8bn or 99.2% of GDP in May 2021.

The latest public sector finances released on Tuesday 22 June reported a deficit of £24.3bn for May 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances, albeit at a reduced rate. An improvement from the £43.8bn reported for the same month last year during the first lockdown, it was still significantly higher than the £5.5bn reported for May 2019.

The Office for National Statistics revised the reported deficit for the year ended 31 March 2020 down by £1.1bn from £300.3bn to £299.2bn, still a peacetime record. The final total is still expected to exceed £300bn as the ONS has yet to include in the order of £27bn of bad debts on COVID-related lending in this number. Estimates will be refined further over the next few months.

Cumulative receipts in the first two months of the financial year of £128.6bn were £15.9bn or 14% higher than a year previously, but this was still £0.7bn or 0.5% below the level seen a year before that in April and May 2019. At the same time cumulative expenditure of £165.8bn was £20.9bn or 11% lower than the first two months of 2020-21, but £37.2bn or 29% higher than the same period two years ago.

Ultra-low interest rates continued to benefit the interest line, which at £9.1bn in April and May 2021 was £0.1bn or 1% lower than April and May 2020 and £1.5bn or 14% lower than April and May 2019.

Net public sector investment was slightly lower than last year with £7.1bn invested in April and May 2021, down £0.8bn or 10% from a year before but up £0.9bn or 15% from two years ago.

This combined to produce a cumulative deficit for the first two months of the 2021-22 financial year of £53.4bn, £37.7bn or 41% below that of the same period a year previously, but up £37.3bn or 232% from the total for April and May 2019.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,195.8bn or 99.2% of GDP, an increase of £58.4bn since March, reflecting £5.0bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, principally to fund coronavirus loans to businesses. Debt is £259.1bn or 13% higher than a year earlier and £427.2bn or 24% higher than in April and May 2019.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “With numbers for the second month of the financial year now in, we can see tax receipts are starting to approach pre-pandemic levels, while borrowing continues to increase despite COVID-19 spending starting to decrease. 

“The public finances remain in a fragile state, and ongoing debates about education spending, adult social care and the pensions triple-lock highlight the difficult decisions facing Rishi Sunak as he seeks to balance pressures on our public services with still growing levels of public debt. The prospects of the Chancellor raising taxes in the Autumn Budget appear to be increasing.”

Images showing a table of the fiscal numbers for 2 months to May 2021 and variances against the prior year and two years. Click on link at end of this post to the ICAEW website which has a readable version of the table.
Images showing a table of the fiscal deficit by month, including receipts, expenditures interest and net investment. Click on link at end of this post to the ICAEW website which has a readable version of the table.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit for April 2021 from £31.7bn to £29.1bn and the deficit for the twelve months ended 31 March 2021 from £300.3bn to £299.2bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.