Infrastructure sector hardest hit as new orders drop 26% on last three months of 1998.
The number of new construction orders fell dramatically between December 1998 and February 1999, the latest quarterly DETR survey has found.

Orders fell 26% to £4.77bn compared with the previous quarter and were 24% down on the same period a year ago.

"Obviously, they're disappointing results," said Chris Nicholls, the Construction Confederation's economist. "There is weakness in the industry – a lot of it tied in with the general overall gloom there's been and expectancy of recession."

Hardest hit was the infrastructure sector, which showed a 47% fall on the previous quarter, although the drop was only 9% compared with the corresponding period a year ago .

Public non-housing orders – excluding infrastructure – were 19% down on the previous three months, private industrial orders fell 22% and private commercial orders were down 24%.

Doug Twigg, managing director of regional operations at consulting engineer Mott MacDonald, said the company had been expecting a downturn in infrastructure work.

"We're aware that there are uncertainties about the future of rail and water work. There could be a downturn," he said.

However he disagreed with the gloomy overall assessment, saying Mott MacDonald was busy and had been for some time.

He said: "Our future order book is at least as good as a year ago. We've not experienced the kind of dramatic drop these figures show."

They’re disappointing results. There is weakness in the industry – a lot of it tied in with the overall gloom and expectancy of recession

Chris Nicholls, Economist, Construction Confederation

In housing, the DETR found public housing orders had fallen 32% on the previous quarter, with private housing orders down 11%.

Thomas Vale managing director Tony Hyde said: "We've not seen much evidence of public sector housing orders. I'd certainly agree with the figures for that sector."

Hyde said order levels in the health and education sectors were also poor. The figures show a fall of 19% for public non-housing orders won.

"There does seem to be less work about and fewer tenders. Tenders are down by about 10-15%," said Hyde. But he added: "I'm not depressed at the moment."

Medium-sized Mansfield contractor Baggaley Construction has seen orders fall since the new year, bearing out the DETR's figures.

"Enquiries have dropped 50% in the past four weeks. We've detected a fall-off since January. I'm not too surprised by the figures," said managing director Howard Baggaley.

Baggaley is confident that his company will meet its yearly turnover target for the year to June, but said most income would come from orders placed between June and November last year.