Construction activity rises but confidence falls

UK construction companies signalled that business conditions remained subdued during October. Output growth was largely confined to housebuilding, which partly offset lower volumes of civil engineering and commercial activity. Moreover, the balance of construction firms expecting an increase in business activity over the next 12 months eased to its weakest since December 2012.

“Greater house building was the sole bright spot in an otherwise difficult month for the construction sector,” said Tim Moore, Associate Director at IHS Markit and author of the IHS Markit/CIPS Construction PMI. “Reduced tender opportunities and fragile demand are placing a dark cloud over the near-term outlook.

“October survey data indicated that UK construction companies are now the least confident about their forthcoming workloads since December 2012. Staff recruitment has also begun to tail off as construction companies head into the winter with heightened concern about demand conditions.

Caution in terms of the outlook for construction workloads meant that employment numbers increased at one of the slowest rates seen over the past four years. At 50.8 in October, up from 48.1 in September, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Purchasing Managers’ Index® (PMI®) moved back above the 50.0 no-change mark.

However, the latest reading was weaker than the post-crisis trend (54.7) and signalled only a marginal rise in overall construction output. Commercial building decreased for the fourth month running in October, which survey respondents liked to worries about the UK economic outlook and subsequent delays to decision-making among clients.

The latest rise in housing activity was faster than in September, but still subdued in comparison to the average for 2017 to date. October data pointed to a marginal increase in new work across the construction sector, thereby ending a three-month period of decline.

“Residential work has been a key growth engine for construction so far in 2017,” said Moore. “However, some firms commented on renewed apprehension about the durability of house building outperformance, which has been achieved against a backdrop of sustained policy support and ultra-low interest rates.”

However, the rate of new order growth remained weaker than recorded at any time from mid-2013 to early last year. Survey respondents generally cited fragile client demand, with heightened economic and political uncertainty acting as a brake on growth. The index measuring construction firms’ expectations for business activity over the year ahead signalled that optimism dipped to a 58-month low in October.

Intense supply chain pressures were recorded again in October, driven by low stocks and constrained capacity among vendors. Some firms noted that a recovery in demand for construction products across the euro area had added to cost pressures, alongside the weaker sterling exchange rate. Input prices increased sharply, but the rate of inflation remained softer than the near six-year peak seen at the start of 2017.

Duncan Brock, Director of Customer Relationships at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply, said, “Supply chains were under the cosh again this month, as buyers struggled to get the materials and products they needed due to low stocks and squeezed supply, exacerbated by increased construction demand in the Eurozone. There were also reports of increasing shortages in some raw materials which slowed work already underway.

“Housing continued to show the strongest foundations and is set to be the main driver of growth in the coming months but the prospect of softer consumer demand and rising costs will impact. Any heavy reliance on residential building alone would be foolhardy with interest rate rises on the horizon and availability of skilled workers lacking in the sector, unless the Chancellor pulls a rabbit out of the hat and supports the training of new construction workers, the pound recovers some stability and a surge of supply capacity become available.”

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