JUNE CONSTRUCTION output data points to a sharp turnaround in the performance of the UK construction sector.
The phased restart of work on site helped to lift output volumes and boost business confidence. At the same time, new orders stabilised after three months of sharp declines and purchasing activity expanded at the fastest rate since December 2015.
The headline seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Total Activity Index jumped to 55.3 in June, from 28.9 in May, to signal a strong increase in total construction output.
The latest reading is the steepest pace of expansion since July 2018.
Residential building was the best-performing area of construction activity in June. Around 46% of survey respondents noted an increase in housing activity, while only 27% experienced a reduction. The latest expansion of residential construction work was the steepest for just under five years.
Commercial work and civil engineering activity also returned to growth in June, although the rates of expansion were softer.
New business volumes increased marginally in June, which ended a three-month period of decline. However, the rate of new order growth was far weaker than seen for business activity, reflecting ongoing hesitancy among clients and longer lead-times to secure new contracts. A number of construction firms noted that new infrastructure projects was a key source of growth in June.
Employment numbers fell at the end of the second quarter, suggesting worries about longer-term demand leading to cautious hiring as well as some redundancies and ongoing furloughs in June.
The index measuring business expectations for the year ahead remained historically subdued, but climbed to its highest since February amid a boost from the reopening of sites. Exactly 46% of the survey panel anticipate a rise in business activity, while 31% forecast a reduction citing concerns about the economic outlook.
Severe supply chain disruptions continued in June, reflecting stronger demand in construction, and there are ongoing reports of difficulties obtaining materials (especially plaster). This resulted in another rise in purchasing costs, with the rate of inflation accelerating to its highest since the start of 2020.
Tim Moore, Economics Director at IHS Markit, which compiles the survey:
“As the first major part of the UK economy to begin a phased return to work, the strong rebound in construction activity provides hope to other sectors that have suffered through the lockdown period. While it has taken time for the construction supply chain to adapt and rebuild capacity after widespread business closures, there is now clear evidence that a return to growth has been achieved.
“While some survey respondents commented on cautious optimism about their near-term prospects, construction companies continued to face challenges securing new work against an unfavourable economic backdrop and a lost period for tender opportunities. At the same time, operating expenses are rising due to constrained capacity across the supply chain and the impact of social distancing measures.
“Looking ahead, construction firms are more confident than at any time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the ongoing reductions in staffing numbers seen in June provide a stark reminder that underlying conditions across the sector are a long way off returning to those seen before the public health emergency.”
Duncan Brock, Group Director at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply adds:
“Builders were the stars of the UK economy in June with the fastest rise in purchasing activity in almost five years, as pent-up building plans were unleashed following the easing of lockdown measures. Housing led the way with the other main sectors closely behind as several larger infrastructure projects were also on the move.
“As business confidence improved to its largest extent since February, companies were buying up materials and laying the groundwork for a stronger summer’s end. This resulted in the highest input price inflation since the start of the year as supply chains creaked under the strain of increased shortages. Building performance is dependent on other sectors recovering at a similar pace, and as businesses were opening up, some fell short of their usual delivery capacity.
“Only two months ago the construction sector produced the worst results in the history of the PMI, and there are still some potholes to navigate around as Government support for jobs is stripped away. Employment levels remained deflated, with reports of redundancies, furloughed staff and a reluctance to boost staff numbers when new order levels remained so flat. But with a significant rise in the headline output number, it looks as though all the building blocks are there for the sector’s increasing ahealth.”