EU referendum blamed for construction slowdown

UK construction firms experienced another difficult month overall in May, with output growth easing to its weakest for almost three years and incoming new work declining for the first time since April 2013. June 3, 2016 / Isla MacFarlane
EU referendum blamed for construction slowdown

According to the latest Markit/CIPS UK Construction PMI, survey respondents noted a general slowdown in market conditions and delays to client decision making ahead of the EU referendum. However, there were signs that construction companies remain relatively upbeat about the growth outlook, with more than half of the survey panel (51%) expecting a rise in output over the next 12 months and only one-in-seven (14%) anticipating a fall.  As a result, job creation picked up in May and reached a four-month high.

Residential building work increased at one of the weakest rates seen since early-2013, while growth of commercial activity was the slowest for nearly three years. Civil engineering stagnated in May, which made it the worst performing sub-category of activity for the second month running. May data signalled an outright reduction in new order volumes for the first time since April 2013.

Anecdotal evidence pointed to a general lack of client confidence, driven by heightened uncertainty about the economic outlook. Moreover, a number of firms noted reluctance among clients to place orders and commence contracts until after the EU referendum.

According to a special question added to the survey this month, around one-third of respondents have seen a detrimental impact on their business from uncertainty regarding the forthcoming vote.

A reduced flow of incoming new work contributed to cautious stock policies and input buying at construction firms in May. Reflecting this, the latest survey pointed to stagnation in purchasing activity across the construction sector.

A robust pace of input price inflation was also recorded in May, although the latest rise in average cost burdens was slower than April’s nine-month high. Looking ahead, UK construction firms are upbeat overall about the year-ahead outlook, with just over half of the survey panel forecasting a rise in output. The degree of optimism was up fractionally since April, but still at one of the lowest levels seen over the past three years. Survey respondents linked this to heightened economic uncertainty and concern that softer market conditions will persist into the second half of 2016, especially in the housing sector.

Tim Moore, Senior Economist at Markit and author of the Markit/CIPS Construction PMI® , said, “Construction companies are facing a challenging second quarter of 2016, with growth headwinds apparent across all three key areas of activity. May data signalled the worst month for commercial building since June 2013, while residential work and civil engineering activity both saw a renewed loss of momentum.

“Survey respondents noted that the forthcoming EU referendum has disrupted new order flows and the timing of client decision making in particular. Heightened uncertainty and subdued general economic conditions in turn contributed to the first outright fall in new work received by construction firms for just over three years.”

David Noble, Group Chief Executive Officer at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply, said, “The sector appeared to have taken residence in a waiting room of non-activity, as continuing poor global economic conditions and uncertainty around the EU referendum impacted growth and new orders.

“Supplier performance degraded and continued its downwards trend which began in September 2010. Purchasing activity ground to a virtual standstill. The chink of light appeared to be the industry’s optimism for the future and an indication that that this may be a short-term situation as employment continued to rise to a four-month high and job creation has been continuous for three years. Once again the industry holds its breath to see what the coming months will bring as housing sector growth in particular remains weak.”

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