The release of the first quarter 2009 house building figures for England will most likely provide a bit of everything for commentators, pundits and truth spinners.

Chances are there are reasons to be more cheerful and reasons to be more depressed than you were after reading them.

But for my money what the figures really underline is the challenge facing the nation as it strives to create a housing stock fit for purpose.

So what can we take out of the figures?

An optimistic interpretation will no doubt be to say: "Yes, they show the devastation caused to the industry by plunging sales. But surely the figures suggest things are not as bad as some would have us believe. Look completions are only down about 20% on a year ago and in London they are hardly down at all?"

A pessimistic view might be: "Hang on a minute, completions may not be on the floor, but those starts figures look awful."

Truth is you would be hard pushed to build a business plan on these numbers. At best they are indicative. Turmoil in the market does odd things and throws up unexpected paradoxes.

For instance a slowdown in sales could prompt some developers to speed up completions on, say, apartment blocks. This would convert cash in the ground to cash in the bank, even if it is less than originally expected.

And exactly what does a start mean in terms of future work. In today's climate it is definitely no guarantee the project will be completed.

Furthermore the pattern regionally of decline in house building is far from even with each market at a different point in the recessionary cycle.

For instance, where there are more apartment blocks and larger schemes we can expect completions to hold up much better than otherwise, at least in the short term. This may be part of the reason why London on paper looks to be performing better than other regions.

To get a better feel for what the numbers mean to the industry overall it may be useful to take 2007 as a benchmark. It was a good year by recent standards, but remains woefully below the Government's targets, which we are told are needs based.

On this basis of comparison the first quarter of 2009 saw completions down a third on the 2007 average and starts at 44% the 2007 average level. And within that social housing completions were up 22% and starts up 16%.

But here are some figures to consider. If you take starts over the past three quarters, which is basically from when the meltdown started in spring last year, you see there were 56,380. Now compare this with the same nine month period two years before. Then there were 125,250.

What this tells us is that we are looking at starts running for a sustained period at about 40% of the peak level at the start of 2006 - on an annualised basis that it somewhere around 80,000.

That is consisted with annual housing completions running at some point in the future at below 100,000.

That really does present a challenge to hit the 3 million by 2020 target. The average number of homes needed to be built each year to hit that target is currently closing on 250,000 and rising.