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UK construction industry growth lowest in six years

Growth prospects for the construction industry in 2018 have been downgraded as the UK prepares to leave the EU, according to the latest forecasts by the Construction Products Association (CPA).

Output is expected to soften as a slowing economy, falling real wages and rising costs adversely affect the industry. Growth for 2018 is therefore expected to rise by just 0.7 percent, the slowest in six years, and a downward revision from 1.2 percent predicted in previous forecasts.

For now, activity on site is high and output is expected to rise by 1.6 percent in 2017, an upward revision from the 1.3 percent rise expected in previous forecasts. This will be partly due to a sharp rise in new contracts and activity in the £6.9 billion public housing repair, maintenance and improvements sector, in order to deal with short-term urgent measures following the Grenfell Tower fire.

An increase in infrastructure activity and private house-building is expected to be the primary driver of growth over the next two years, which will help offset a sharp fall in the commercial and industrial sectors. Growth in infrastructure will be due to major projects in rail and water and sewerage, such as HS2 and the Thames Tideway Tunnel, with activity forecast to grow by 7.4 percent in 2017 and 6.4 percent in 2018. Growth will be dependent on delivery of these projects, while the extent of the continued delays to main works at Hinkley Point C have resulted in its exclusion from CPA forecasts.  

The private house-building sector is still reliant on Help to Buy equity loans to drive housebuilding numbers. The policy is in place until 2021, which is expected to support demand for new builds and drive growth in private housing starts of three percent in 2017 and two percent in 2018. However, given uncertainties over the strength of consumer confidence and falls in real earnings, this is slower than in previous years.

Looking further ahead, growth for 2019 is projected to be 1.8 percent, but unprecedented economic and political uncertainties following the lack of a significant majority for the UK government as the UK leaves the EU, mean that the risks around this forecast are considerable. 

Noble Francis, economics director at the CPA, commented: “Construction firms are still reporting that activity remains high and there are still lots of cranes around. But there are clear signs that construction output is slowing and that next year, in particular, will be difficult for the industry. Prospects for construction have been adversely affected by slowing UK economic growth and falling real wages on one side and sharp rising costs on the other. A fall in new investment, especially where it is large international investment looking for a long-term rate of return, is forecast to lead to declines in the commercial and industrial sectors.”

“Despite the slowdown in the general housing market, particularly in London, house builders continue to increase supply, albeit more slowly than in recent years. Currently, more than a third of new house building is being sustained by the Government’s Help to Buy scheme and should continue to be so over the next 18 months if the wider economy and housing market don’t slow further. However, if economic conditions do deteriorate further, house builders can react quite quickly if necessary. 

“Increases in infrastructure investment are also expected to offset these declines and be the key driver of any construction growth going forward. However, concerns regarding rising costs and delays to major projects continue to dog the sector, so there remains a high degree of uncertainty around infrastructure growth in the next few years. And this infrastructure investment will be vital for the industry as a whole. Without it, total construction output would fall by one percent in 2018.”

7 August 2017

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