Consumer confidence rises as top 10 housebuilder sees visitors return to the show homes.
Consumer confidence in the housing sector bounced back in January, according to Bryant Group, the first top 10 housebuilder to report this year. Bryant finance director Michael Chapman said confidence was hit in November and December and that the traditional early January pick-up was delayed as a result. But the number of visitors to Bryant sites rose towards the end of the month. Chapman said: "The signs are there that the market is picking up the way it should." Chapman said the first three months of the year are usually busy for housebuilders, so a good start to January is crucial.

Chief executive Andrew MacKenzie said the Bank of England's interest rate cuts should have a positive impact on sales.

"It's a bit early to say that a definite upturn is emerging, but I believe it is picking up," he added.

Bryant, Britain's seventh-largest housebuilder, last week unveiled a strong set of results for the six months to 30 November 1998.

The group, which has housing and construction operations, made a pre-tax profit of £29.5m, up 38% on the previous six months.

Its turnover rose 15% to £299.4m, with housebuilding contributing £238m and construction £61.4m. Interim completions rose slightly to 1798 – 2.6% ahead of last year's 1752.

Average selling price rose £7500 to £132 100. Bryant also managed to increase the operating margin in its homes business from 11% to 13.1%. This is healthy compared with the 7% margin the firm reported during the last recession.

MacKenzie said the company was hit by a 5% increase in costs, mostly caused by rising labour rates. "There are signs that labour costs have eased, particularly in the South-east, where they had got pretty ferocious," MacKenzie said.

Bryant's margin in the construction division slipped slightly from 2.3% to 2%.

MacKenzie expects the firm to build 30% of its new developments on recycled land this year, well short of deputy prime minister John Prescott's industry target of 60%.

MacKenzie described the government's brownfield redevelopment target as unachievable. "It's a politically inspired target. There is no way the government is going to meet it," he said.

However, MacKenzie said there was good news on the planning front. "It is a conventional bleat from housebuilders that planning is a problem and it has been bad over the last 18 months. But, in certain parts of the country, there is evidence that planning appeal time is falling." MacKenzie said he expected more consolidation in the housebuilding sector this year, adding that Bryant would consider any acquisition prospects that came along.