Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Cecilie Booth, CPFA

Cecilie Booth Cecilie Booth qualified with CIPFA in 1998. She began her career with the NHS as an internal auditor, then moved to local government as head of finance at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council in the 1990s, before moving onto what was then Macclesfield Borough Council, as finance director, in 2004.

In 2006, Cecilie moved into the private sector, working for Capita as a financial consultant for ten years, advising local authorities on capital finance and investment. She then spent a couple of years with treasury advisors Arlingclose, before moving onto temporary roles work with a number of councils, including Cherwell District Council, South Northhamptonshire Council (as finance director), Newham Council, and Surrey County Council.

Cecilie then joined City of London Police where she currently works – as finance director initially, and currently on a fixed-term contract as COO.

What led you to become a CIPFA member/qualify with CIPFA?

When I worked at the NHS, back in the 1990s, there was quite a good career path there for an internal auditor like myself, and there was a requirement to be qualified before you could move along with your career. The standard qualification in the NHS at the time was CIMA, so everyone was studying for that. A colleague and I decided to go against the norm of the time and choose CIPFA instead. And I must say that looking back, it was very much the right choice. I’m very glad I did it: my intention was always to remain in the public sector and it seemed a more tailored qualification

Why did you choose the public over private sector?

With regards to finance, I think like most people it’s something that you just drift into. After I had children I went back to work again – back in those days I started off as an interim (temporary worker) – doing some administrative work. When an opportunity came up in the finance department, I applied for it and was successful. So I worked in financial accounts, then financial management, and then internal audit, and along with the job there was the opportunity to train. But finance wasn’t a planned career route.

As for the public sector, I particularly like the ethos of the sector. Good services in the public sector can make a real difference to people’s lives, for example the provision of good affordable housing. As I said, I’ve always been keen to remain working in the sector, so when I moved jobs into the private sector with Capita in 2006, what actually attracted to me about moving to work in the private sector was having the opportunity to carry on working with the public sector. Capita were my advisors when I was working for Macclesfield Borough Council (now part of Cheshire East) and they offered me a job as part of what they do for the public sector. I had a particular interest in housing finance at the time and I developed a housing-related offering to local authorities.

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date? Are there any particular stand out, pivotal moments?

When the markets crashed in 2008, the housing market crashed as well, and first-time buyers were completely locked out of the housing market. I was working for Capita at the time, and I was leading the treasury team on housing and I developed the Local Authorities Mortgage Scheme, aimed at getting first-time buyers back onto the property ladder. We worked in partnership with local authorities where they would place an investment with Lloyds Bank, and Lloyds would offer 95% mortgages to first-time buyers, with an indemnity from the local authority. 

It was a very successful scheme – lots of first-time buyers were able to purchase their first home and we had many success stories. We had a lot of interest from the government and the housing minister at the time, and in the end the government took our scheme and rolled it out as its Help to Buy guarantee scheme. 

We had a total of 120 local authorities signed up to the scheme in the end, and probably would have had every authority in the country signed up if the government hadn’t taken it over. I can’t remember how many mortgages we had but not a single one ended up in default, and authorities made quite a lot of money as they were earning premium interest on the deposit they had placed with Lloyds, which sat there for five years – this was at a time when interest rates were plummeting, and they had a fixed-rate interest rate for five years. It was a great return on investment for the authorities involved.

What have been the greatest challenges, both during your career and within the public finance sector as a whole?

When I have been working as a consultant with local authorities, they are so squeezed for funding year-on-year and have to make their funding stretch further. And as a finance director it’s been the same: trying to do more with less money. Everything is much more transparent, so you have to publish more, which is very time consuming on top of everything else you have to do. There is a growing number of things we must accomplish with less resources with which to do them and that in itself is a huge challenge.

How has being a CIPFA member supported you in your career?

When working in finance, being a qualified accountant makes all the difference. And so, the day I received my letter saying I’d passed my final exam my life changed. I went back to my boss at the time and said that I needed a bigger challenge, more opportunities. Six or nine months after qualifying, I became a head of finance. This wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t a CIPFA-qualified accountant. Working as a consultant, having the letters after my name showing I’m a CIPFA-qualified accountant gives me much more credibility. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Some people are not too interested in taking advice. In my career I’ve always been very keen to listen to people, but I’ve worked with others who ignore advice and have regretted it. So, I would say: be prepared to listen.

What advice would you give to people who are beginning their career in public finance?

Persevere. Being CIPFA qualified opens up a whole new world.