The number of first-time buyers grew by around one fifth in 2013, marking the strongest annual increase in more than a decade.

There were around 265,000 first-time buyers in the UK in 2013, showing the highest annual total since 2007 and lifting by 22% from an estimated 218,000 in 2012, according to Halifax, which used a combination of Council of Mortgage Lenders' figures and its own to make its findings.

Halifax said the 22% increase is the strongest annual rise seen since 2001. The rise also meant that first-time buyers increased their share of all house purchases made with a mortgage, now accounting for 44%, up from 40% in 2012.

Its figures also showed how ultra-low interest rates have helped to improve mortgage affordability in recent years. The proportion of disposable earnings devoted to mortgage payments by a first-time buyer stood at 30% in the last three months of 2013, compared with a peak of 50% in the summer of 2007.

Halifax also found that less than one third (32%) of local authority districts in the UK have house prices which are affordable to a first-time buyer on average earnings. House prices are deemed to be affordable if they cost up to four times earnings.

But this is a significant improvement compared with the peak of the market in 2007, when just 5% of districts were found to be affordable.

One hundred per cent of local authority districts in London, the South East, the South West and the East of England were found to be unaffordable for first-time buyers in 2013.

In Scotland, 46% of local authority districts were found to be affordable and in Wales, 75% of districts were affordable. Halifax did not include figures for Northern Ireland in its affordability findings.

Yorkshire and the Humber was found to be the region with the biggest percentage of local authority districts which were affordable to first-time buyers, at 76%.

In the North East, 69% of districts were found to be affordable, in the North West this was 70%, in the East Midlands the figure was 52% and in the West Midlands just 13% of districts were affordable.

A string of Government schemes have given those aspiring to get on the property ladder a helping hand over the last year. In October, the Government launched a new phase of its flagship Help to Buy scheme, which offers state-backed mortgages to people with deposits of just 5%.

But critics of the scheme have argued that a lack of supply of homes for sale amid rising demand from buyers has put an upward pressure on house prices, meaning buyers have to stretch their borrowing further to keep up with the price increases.

Fears have also been raised about what will happen to borrowers when interest rates start to rise again and their mortgage payments go up.

Halifax also found that close to half (45%) of all first-time buyer purchases in 2013 were below the £125,000 stamp duty threshold. A similar proportion (46%) of properties bought by this sector were priced between £125,000 and £250,000.

The overwhelming majority (98%) of people taking their first step on the property ladder in London bought homes above the £125,000 threshold, followed by the South East (87%), and South West (74%).

First-time buyers in London put down the largest average deposit in 2013, at £56,183, while those in Northern Ireland put down the smallest typically, at £13,917.

Martin Ellis, a housing economist at Halifax, said: "Low interest rates, improvements in consumer confidence and Government schemes, such as Help to Buy, all appear to have contributed to the rise in the number of first-time buyers.

"However, many potential first-time buyers continue to find raising the necessary deposit a problem. The Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme should enable more buyers to get on to the property ladder with smaller deposits. Continuing pressure on household finances during the next 12 months will no doubt remain a constraint."

Housing Minister Kris Hopkins said: "I'm pleased to see that our efforts to help aspiring homeowners and restore the health of the housing market are reaping results, with the biggest increase in first-time buyers for a decade.

"Already, our Help to Buy schemes have helped over 26,000 people without a large deposit to get on the housing ladder, while our work to cut the record deficit we inherited has helped keep interest rates low and home ownership at its most affordable for six years.

"And in response to this increased demand, developers have already said they are planning to build more homes, with housebuilding at its highest level since 2007."

The figures - which come on the heels of news of an 8.4% surge in house prices across the UK - sparked a fresh warning from a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister that Government policies risked creating a new housing bubble.

Business Secretary Vince Cable said he feared that unsustainable rises could jeopardise the wider economic recovery.

Prime Minister David Cameron has accused critics of Help to Buy such as Mr Cable of being "London-centric" and insisted that in many parts of the country prices were "barely moving at all".

The latest annual increase in prices across the country is the biggest jump seen since June 2010. Every region across the UK saw prices increase year-on-year, ranging from a 14.9% annual increase in London to a 1.9% uplift in the North.

Prices in the capital are now 14% above their annual peak, with the price of the typical home having reached £345,186, according to the latest figures.

Across the UK, they rose by 1.4% month-on-month in December to reach £175,826 on average, although they remain around 5% below all-time highs recorded in late 2007.

Mr Cable told the Daily Telegraph: "The Government has done really good work turning the economy around: we can't now risk it being derailed by a housing bubble repeating the mistakes of Gordon Brown.

"If we are going to get a recovery it has to come through exports and British industry, not property inflation," he said.

Speaking about the Bank of England's powers to intervene, he said: "It's not my job to tell them what to do, but I get a sense that the Governor of the Bank does understand this is a serious problem."

Mr Ellis said such concerns were "exaggerated".

"A lot of the commentary around concerns of overheating is exaggerated and we think this is a positive sign and a step back towards a more normal and a more healthy housing market than we've seen in recent years," he told BBC Radio 4's Today.

"We do expect interest rates to rise at some point but we do expect that to be a gradual one and we think most people will be able to accommodate that and will be able to adjust their own spending patterns and the demands on their incomes."