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Cold weather clips UK construction but reveals underlying optimism.

Ref: 159

Date: Wed 10/Apr/2013, 16:17

The Markit/CIPS construction purchasing managers' index stood at 47.2 in March - up from a 40-month low of 46.8. However, any number below 50 denotes a contraction and the latest reading undershot forecasts for a figure of 47.5.

Markit, which compiles the survey, said that unusually cold weather combined with sluggish underlying demand kept a lid on construction work in March.

Despite the weak headline number, the construction sector showed some signs of resilience last month, according to the survey. The decline in new orders was the least sharp since October, while house building grew at the fastest rate since May 2012.

The promising trend in residential work helped lift optimism among businesses to its highest level in almost a year, as they forecast a rise in output over the coming 12 months.

The Treasury and the Bank of England have announced several measures since last year to try to boost the housing sector, including government plans to guarantee up to £130bn of mortgage issuance.

David Noble, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, said the construction sector seemed to have a "spring in its step" as confidence accelerated despite the weather.

"Whether this is a reaction to the Government’s efforts to rejuvenate construction or simply an acknowledgement that things could not have been much worse than in February, we will have to wait and see," he added.

“The latest figures complete the picture of a fairly dismal first quarter, which has admittedly been affected by unusually bad weather, with output and employment down on the last quarter of 2012," he said. "New orders on the other hand are less hard to come by in comparison, which offers some justification for the boost in confidence.”

Civil engineering was by far the worst performing area of construction activity last month, according to Markit. There was a steep drop in output, with the pace of contraction the fastest since October 2009. Commercial activity shrank for the seventh time in the past eight months.

Mr Noble cited a "lack of public spending" as a reason behind the drop off in civil engineering.

Although the construction sector was feeling more optimistic, there are concerns that shrinking ouput could weigh on economic growth.

Despite making up less than 7pc of Britain's gross domestic product, weak construction output was the main reason the economy contracted in three quarters of last year.

With figures earlier this week showing that manufacturing activity had contracted, the services sector remains the best hope for Britain avoiding a fresh recession.

Tim Moore, senior economist at Markit, said: “Shrinking investment spending and intermittent output disruptions amid unusually bad weather kept the UK Construction PMI entrenched in contraction territory at the end of the first quarter.

"The negative print for construction output mirrors that seen for manufacturing, and now leaves the service sector as the last great hope for avoiding another slide in UK GDP."

“Concerns that the UK economy is teetering on the brink of a triple-dip have undoubtedly weighed on client spending this year, but at least some pockets of optimism for the construction sector can be drawn from the latest survey," he added.

"Signs of rising housing activity were the main positive development, while March also saw the slowest drop in construction new orders for five months."

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