For those with an optimistic nature there was some good news to be seen in the latest set of industry forecasts with both the Construction Products Association and Hewes trimming how much they feel output in the industry will fall.

Indeed the three forecasts came closer together in this round of forecasting as Experian took a marginally dimmer view of 2009. This convergence hints at there being more certainty about the near term direction of construction than there was.

That said, as the graph shows, the views of the industry prospects remain some way apart, with Experian the most upbeat and Hewes shading assumptions on the downside.

But all are agreed that 2009 will see the worst of the recession and the pace of decline will slow markedly after that.

It is also interesting to note that, if you take the Experian forecast numbers, the fall in workload this time around will bring the size of the industry to about the same as it was at the peak of the late 1980s early 1990s boom.

But when assessing what these forecasts mean it is well worth noting that they are measuring volumes of work and not the amount of cash coming into the industry. As we are in a phase of unpredictably deep cuts in prices, there is a further layer of uncertainty.

So for instance, heavier discounts might mean budgets will go further and so volumes could hold up better than if prices were firmer, although this effect would be patchy, depending on the sector and the client. And at the same time heavier discounts mean more pain for the industry.

What the graph also shows is that the consensus among the forecasters is for a recession that is sharper than in the 1990s, but of broadly a similar scale.

One of the big differences with this recession when compared with the previous one is that there is a great coincidence in the falls of each sector. So, for instance, last time around recession in house building had more or less bottomed out when commercial output began to collapse. This time these two big sectors are plunging together.

This, in normal circumstances, would suggest that the upswing might be more powerful, on the basis that the revival in sectors would be more coordinated, although this is not a given.

What is clear from the graph, at trend growth it will take some years to return to the level of output acheived in 2007. On the basis of the Construction Products Association forecasts and projections peak levels will not be reached until 2021.

But looking across the broad sweep of the industry the prospects for a recovery will be driven by a few powerful forces. Some of these we can gauge reasonably well others we can't.

Three of the more powerful influences on the volume of construction work are likely to be:

  • The level of unemployment and the pace of increase
  • The level and pace of increase in confidence within the property market
  • The speed at which public funding recedes

The latest news on unemployment was more positive than had been expected, although it would be foolish to suggest that a temporary slowdown in the rate of growth was evidence of a turnaround in fortunes. But there will be many who see this as evidence that the Government's stimulus has had some positive effects.

There are also signs of increased confidence in the property market. IPD, which produces property indicies shows a marked turnaround in the UK property market. And a poll by Reita, the property investment information portal, found 54% of property expepts seeing a "significant improvement in investor sentiment.

How sustainable this is and how long this will take to feed through into construction is uncertain, but there is some cause for a bit of relief.

However, to use that much-used cliché, the elephant in the room is the question over how deep will be the cuts in public spending on construction and how much damage will that do to output overall. Will the upswing in private activity be strong enough to avoid a double-dip recession?

The general view among the forecasters is that the bite into publicly-funded construction output will not be that evident in the figures until late 2011.

The play at that point between a falling public sector workload and a potentially rising private sector will be what determines the strength of any recovery in construction, or indeed whether the industry plunges back into recession in the next decade.

So, whatever rays of hope there are in the current forecasts and data should be viewed through the prism of uncertainty when looking to the medium term.

And, certainly, of more immediate concern when considering the forecasters' views on output volumes should be the impact the recession is having on prices.

Here the picture still looks bleak with the latest tender price forecast from the cost information service BCIS suggests that tender prices could fall peak-to-trough by 15% if there are deep cuts in public spending or if the uplift in work from private sector clients is sluggish.