Housing starts in England plunged in the final quarter of last year to levels not seen in modern times.

At the depth of the last house building recession during the worst three month period at the end of 1992 private firms started 19,227 homes. In the final quarter of 2008 just 12,640 private homes were started - one third fewer.

For those with longer memories, the slump in private house building in the early 1980s saw a fall in the final quarter of 1980 to 17,771. But there was at the time a more substantial social sector building programme, although at the time it was shrinking fast.

Even with the efforts of the current expanded housing association sector starting 3,510 and councils a further 160, the final quarter figures for total starts are probably the worst you'll find on record without the aid of a forensic statistician.

The relationship between starts, activity on the ground and completions is far from linear, but the clear message from these figures is that we are heading for a year of house building worse than most people alive will have witnessed.

It is true that completions held up reasonably well, but that is not surprising as firms are keen to finish off those sites they have not mothballed so they can flog them off asap.

Apparently there were 142,800 homes completed in England last year compared with 175,280 last year. But the 2008 figure will be flattered by a bigger contribution from the social sector and the momentum from the mega schemes that have been progressing through the system for some years.

But for the more eagle-eyed it is likely to be the drop in starts of housing association homes in the final quarter that will have them puzzled. This rather fits with the shock drop in orders for construction work in the sector.

There had been an upward trend in housing association starts and the Government through the newly formed Homes and Communities Agency is pushing the social sector to help fill the hole left by the retreating private sector.

Having pondered long and hard on this one I can't help but come back to the nagging question: Could it be that housing associations are shifting their spending to buying up unsold private stock and away from building?