The good news is that after the monstrous distraction over the past month cause by raking over expense claims made by MPs we are getting back to debate about things that really will shape our lives - notably how much dosh there is (or rather isn't) in the Treasury coffers and how much the Government might have to spend.

The bad news is that even from the scantest of glances at the Treasury figures as we see on the TV makes you realise something gruesome is afoot.

But as if that isn't bad enough, when we look at the prospect facing the construction industry we have figures coming out all over the place that on the surface tease us into seeing signs of comfort.

That is until you look in detail and try to put meaning to the numbers. Then you realise these are barbed data.

The latest construction new orders figures are just of that ilk. The figures for housing orders appear to suggest a rally. Indeed that is the take on them given by the surveyors' body RICS, admittedly laden with caution.

But in reality all we have here is a bounce back after such ludicrously low levels of orders that were they to continue we might all just as well pack up and go home.

The months over the bleak winter were extremely abnormal and the pathetic amount of orders let over the period was without doubt the result of virtually all plans for the future being put on hold as people digested the bleak economic outlook over the winter.

So let's not read too much into that bounce back. Here perhaps is an alternative way of absorbing what the figures might mean to the industry going forward.

Let's see what we get when we look at the figures on the basis of orders won over the past 12 months and compare where we are now with the highest point over the past two years? That will give us a clue to the scale of the fall in workload that we can expect to see come through and drive levels of output.

  • Public housing orders - down 22%
  • Private housing orders - down 58%
  • Infrastructure orders - down 4%
  • Public other work orders - down 10%
  • Private industrial orders - down 50%
  • Private commercial orders - down 44%
  • All new work orders - down 30%

Ok these are just figures taken from one month in the year. They could get better next month.

But if you accept the seasonal adjustments and the deflators used by ONS to get to the construction new orders at constant 2005 prices seasonally adjusted figures - since the 1950s we have not seen orders for new work this low other than in the period 1980 to 1983.

There are only two quarters in the modern record books - both in 1980 - that saw less in the way of orders for new work coming through than in the first quarter of this year.

Not a pretty picture.

And we haven't seen public sector spending savaged yet. Had public spending not been holding up until relatively recently the picture would probably look much worse.

What concerns me mostly is that contractors in particular are only just beginning to get it - that this could be (I don't say will be) the worst recession in the history for the modern construction industry.

It concerns me and those I talk to and trust in the construction economics prognostication game, that contractors are waking up only now to the fragility of public sector construction workloads.

I may be doing the bosses of contractors a disservice and they may have seen all this coming, but I have to admit I have regularly, over the past year or so, had to listen to contractors pointing to their growing public sector workload as a positive.

The likelihood of the public sector having to retreat from construction has been on the cards for some years. The taxpayer will only accept so much. Sad maybe, but true.

Leaving to one side whether they saw it coming, the consequences threaten to be very disturbing indeed in terms of falling workload.

But as I have long argued, the fall in workload in the last recession was really only the catalyst to the issues that caused most damage.

What crippled the construction industry is not so much falling workload but the reaction of the players within the game.

I was taken to lunch earlier this week by two industry lobbyists (without wishing to be too specific) who wanted to discuss how construction might and should respond to the recession. Specifically I was asked what firms should be looking to do.

Off the top of my head I suggested the below. I think I still hold by that initial response. Fortunately I declined on being offered wine.

The construction industry is relatively flexible, that is both its strength and its weakness.

If firms start (perhaps a bit late as they already are) bidding cheaply to win work, bid for more jobs or bid outside their normal areas or scale of work as their primary response to the recession, the industry faces a bigger problem than overall workload. That is exactly what they did in the last recession.

What firms should be doing now is assessing what they are good at and what they are not good at, what makes them profit, what costs them time and resources unprofitably.

They should focus on quality of earnings not volume of earnings.

They should focus effort on what they are good at and judiciously shed the operations that are weak.

I feel uncomfortable saying it. It is cruel for those who will lose jobs in this way. It is ugly and in some ways all this could have been avoided.

That however does not alter the reality that this recession will be cruel and that the industry has no choice but to retreat. Turnover overall must fall. Competition does need to be taken out of the market.

It is better that firms recognise their weaknesses and retreat from them than seek to bid unrealistically against those better placed.

The worst of all outcomes would be to lose good firms because of the woeful bidding by weak operations desperate to win work at any price.

My hope is that the structural changes that have run through the industry since the last recession - more segmentation, more targeted and focussed offerings, fewer generalist "utility players" on the pitch and a better crop of senior managers - may limit the likelihood of an unseemly scramble for work and a chase to the bottom and below on prices.

But the early signs are not brilliant if what my contacts are telling me.