The UK's construction industry is struggling amidst a downturn, as evidenced by declining output for the third consecutive month. The slowdown is predominantly due to a stagnant housing market, leading builders to scale down projects. Latest data from S&P Global's construction purchasing managers' index (PMI) highlights the severity of the situation, as the index slumped to 45.5, down from 45.6 in October, indicating a contraction. This figure, significantly weaker than anticipated, is the second-lowest since the initial COVID-19 lockdowns—a stark reminder of the challenges faced by the UK construction sector.
Shrinking Residential Building Activity
UK construction companies reported a decrease in business activity primarily due to a substantial reduction in residential building. High borrowing costs and subdued demand for new housing projects were frequently mentioned as deterrents to construction activities. The latest data revealed the sharpest drop in purchasing costs across the construction sector in over 14 years—a consequence of lower raw material prices and increased supplier competition due to diminishing demand for construction inputs.
Optimism amid Difficulties
Despite a challenging year marked by escalating inflation, peak interest rates, and a record level of construction insolvencies, the sector has demonstrated resilience. By the third quarter, construction was the only economic sector still experiencing growth, albeit a modest 0.1%, thereby preventing a contraction in the UK's gross domestic product. As we look forward to 2024, there are reasons for optimism, despite the hurdles.
The Housing Market and Beyond
Output from the UK's construction sector fell sharply as housebuilding slumped, with the housebuilding index hitting a dismal 39.2. Even commercial building output shrank, registering at 48.1. Residential construction activity has decreased for 12 consecutive months. Despite this, output has continued to grow in real terms throughout 2023, solely due to repair and maintenance work, while new build output has contracted for three consecutive quarters.