|Weak growth at construction businesses in February cast gloom over hopes for the UK's economic recovery in the first quarter of this year.
Output from the sector grew by 5.5pc on the previous month, failing to recover the ground lost during the usual winter slowdown after it fell 4.8pc and 15.8pc in January and December respectively, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That left construction output for the month 7pc below that seen in February 2012.
Alan Clarke, an economist at Scotiabank, called the monthly growth of 5.5pc disappointing. "That may sound high, but this is not seasonally adjusted and this time of year typically sees a rise of 10-20pc month-on-month," he said.
Economists said that the weak rebound indicated construction probably dragged on the UK’s wider economic performance in the first quarter of this year. The headline growth figure released on April 25 will reveal whether or not the UK has returned to recession – defined as two consecutive quarters in which the economy contracted.
Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight, said construction output would need to jump by almost 44pc in March just to be flat quarter-on-quarter – “which clearly is not going to happen by a very long way”.
Mr Clarke, meanwhile, was braced for the economy to have contracted in the first quarter of this year, meaning it has "triple-dipped" back into recession. Yet "irrespective of whether Q1 [growth] is +0.1pc or -0.1pc, it is the same message – the UK economy is hardly growing," he said.
Statisticians at the ONS said growth in construction had been "quite strong" in the final quarter of last year, as projects disrupted by the Olympic Games were resumed. However, the 5.5pc growth seen in February could represent "a break from this pattern", they cautioned, as it came off a very weak base.
January's construction output had, at £6.9bn, marked the lowest level seen since the monthly construction figures began to be published at the start of 2010.
Although construction accounts for less than 7pc of gross domestic product (GDP), the severity of its decline in recent years has been a major hindrance to a strong economic rebound. "A resurgence in the sector will be an important element of a robust recovery,” said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.