Stalling new business volumes and subdued demand are behind a slowdown in construction growth according to the latest Markit/CIPS UK Construction Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) survey. The survey also highlighted commercial building as being the strongest performing category in April.
April data signalled a further loss of momentum across the UK construction sector, with new order volumes stagnating and overall business activity expanding at its slowest pace since June 2013. Subdued demand conditions contributed to one of the weakest rises in employment numbers recorded over the past three years. At the same time, construction firms indicted a softer increase in input buying and noted a renewed fall in optimism regarding the year-ahead business outlook.
At 52.0 in April, the seasonally adjusted PMI registered above the critical 50.0 no-change threshold, which marked three years of sustained output growth across the construction sector. However, the latest reading was down from 54.2 in March and pointed to the slowest expansion of business activity since mid-2013.
Commercial building was the strongest performing broad category of activity in April, although the latest upturn was the slowest since July 2013. Residential construction growth rebounded only slightly from March’s 38-month low, while civil engineering activity expanded at the weakest pace so far in 2016.
The overall slowdown in construction output growth largely reflected stagnating new business volumes in April. Moreover, the latest survey signalled the weakest momentum for exactly three years. Construction companies cited a number of factors weighing on client spending, including heightened uncertainty about the economic outlook and a general unwillingness to commit to new projects.
Construction firms signalled a renewed decline in confidence about the year-ahead business outlook in April, thereby resuming the general downward trend seen since June 2015. The latest reading pointed to the weakest degree of positive sentiment for almost three years, which survey respondents mainly linked to stagnating new business volumes and a lack of new invitations to tender.
Staffing levels continued to increase across the construction sector during April. Job creation has been recorded in each month since June 2013, which represents the longest period of sustained employment for around a decade. However, the latest increase in payroll numbers was only modest and some firms commented on more cautious hiring policies in response to softer demand patterns. This contributed to a rise in subcontractor usage for the first time in three months during April.
Supply chain pressures eased again in April, as highlighted by the least marked lengthening of vendor delivery times since November 2010. Some firms commented on softer demand for raw materials. Reflecting this, latest data pointed to the weakest increase in input buying for almost three years. However, cost inflation picked up sharply and was the fastest recorded since July 2015.
Tim Moore, senior economist at Markit and author of the Markit/CIPS Construction PMI, said: “UK construction firms reported their worst month for almost three years in April, meaning that the first quarter slowdown is unlikely to prove temporary. Stalling new order volumes not only set the scene for further weakness ahead, but are already weighing on staff hiring and input buying across the construction sector. Softer growth forecasts for the UK economy alongside uncertainty ahead of the EU referendum appear to have provided reasons for clients to delay major spending decisions until the fog has lifted.”
Commenting on the report, David Noble, group chief executive officer at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply, said: “Although UK construction grew marginally in April, clouds of uncertainty are hovering overhead, depressing the industry’s outlook. Business activity expanded at its weakest pace since June 2013, clearly pointing to a loss of momentum in the sector. Fears over weaker UK and global economic growth dealt a blow to confidence in the construction sector, leading to delays in new spending commitments.”