It is safe to say that activity is levelling off, although the value of residential contract activity is encouraging

Michael Dall

Another month and another set of figures to mull over from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). I wrote last month of the temporary blip in the figures due to the timing of Easter this year and, while that certainly amplified any changes, I think it is safe to say that activity is levelling off.

The 1.2% fall in activity month-on-month grabbed the headlines but the longer term three-month indicator compared with the preceding three months (a much better measure) showed a decline of 1.3%. Most concerning from those figures is the decline in new private housing, the bellwether of the industry in recent years, which also declined by 1.3%.

However, I am encouraged by the value of residential contract activity in June with increase of about 40% compared with 2016. This suggests that the fundamentals driving housing output still remain. Of course, whether these contracts are fully delivered and have the anticipated impact on output is subject to a number of uncertainties. However, it is certainly more encouraging than the continuation of the downward trend witnessed in April and May.

Most concerning is the decline in new private housing, the bellwether of the industry in recent years, which declined by 1.3%

This month has also witnessed the award of the first package of construction contracts for HS2. This was well trailed in the press and the practical implications for construction are an inclusion of around £7bn of work in the coming years within the infrastructure sector. That will be much welcomed, particularly since the latest ONS figures show output in the sector declined 1.8% in the three months to May, compared with the previous month. As always there is a sting in the tail with the Department for Transport quickly announcing the postponement of a number of planned rail electrification upgrades due to cost overruns. This is disappointing since the more I travel around the UK the more I realise the paucity of decent transport connections across large swathes of the country.

They are also the kind of schemes which can have a notable impact on output in a short space of time, so it would have provided a much needed boost for the infrastructure figures. That said, infrastructure will take what it can get and whether you view HS2 as a large vanity project or an important part of building a global Britain, the impact on construction output is much anticipated. And needed.

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