UK construction companies experienced a sharp rebound in business activity during May, helped by the fastest upturn in residential work since the end of 2015.
The seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) posted 56.0 in May, up sharply from 53.1 in April, to signal the strongest expansion of overall business activity for 17 months. While the headline index signalled robust growth momentum during May, the latest reading was still much weaker than the post-crisis peak seen in January 2014 (64.6).
A sharp and accelerated rise in residential work was a key factor supporting overall construction activity in May. The housing sub-category has rebounded strongly following the seven-month low seen in March. Moreover, the latest increase in residential building was the fastest since December 2015. Survey respondents cited a strong pipeline of new development projects and resilient underlying demand conditions.
“May’s survey data reveals that the UK construction sector has started to recover strongly from its slow start to 2017,” said Tim Moore, Senior Economist at IHS Markit and author of the Markit/CIPS Construction PMI. “House building was the key growth driver, with work on residential projects rising at the fastest pace since December 2015.
“A sustained rebound in residential building provides an encouraging sign that the recent soft patch for property values has not deterred new housing supply. Instead, strong labour market conditions, resilient demand and ultra-low mortgage rates appear to have helped boost work on residential development projects in May.”
New business intakes picked up in May, with the rate of expansion the fastest seen so far in 2017. Reports from survey respondents mainly cited resilient demand from the housing sector. Despite the improvement in new work, construction firms noted that heightened economic uncertainty continued to act as a brake on client spending.
Meanwhile, prices for imported materials continued to push up input costs during May. However, the overall rate of input price inflation eased further from the peak seen at the start of the year.
Increased workloads underpinned a further marked rise in employment numbers across the construction sector in May. The rate of job creation accelerated for the second month running to its strongest since January 2016. Mirroring the trend for staff recruitment, latest data showed that input buying expanded at the steepest pace for 16 months in May.
A rebound in demand for construction materials placed pressure on supply chains in May, with delivery times lengthening to the greatest extent since March 2015. However, the were more positive developments in terms of cost inflation, as overall input prices rose at the slowest pace for seven months. Survey respondents reported that the weak exchange rate had led to intense negotiations with suppliers, but some noted that the peak phase of price hikes for imported materials had now passed.
Duncan Brock, Director of Customer Relationships at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply, said, “After years of sluggish house building, the construction sector has snapped back into action in May. Construction growth has surged to a 17 month high as the uncertainty caused by the EU referendum appears to be abating.
“The unexpected recovery in construction has been felt most acutely in residential housing as builders finally feel able to respond to demand for new homes. The sector had been held back by the rising cost of raw materials but after months of tense negotiations with suppliers, input prices are starting to stabilise.
“The rapid upturn in production is putting considerable pressure on construction supply chains. Suppliers are struggling to meet demand while there is a growing shortage of contractors to complete work. After the experience of the financial crisis, it may be some time before risk aversion fully recedes and suppliers have more confidence to invest in their capacity. Only time will tell whether we are witnessing a long awaited resurgence in housebuilding.”