CONSTRUCTION output in the UK has suffered its biggest fall in nearly six years, dropping by 2.7% in March, driven by a 2.8% decrease in repair and maintenance and a 2.6% drop in new work, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS said several months of consistently strong growth in private housing slowed down in March, contracting by 1.6% over the quarter.

Repair and maintenance also fell in March, although to a lesser extent than all new work, decreasing by 1.3% compared with the previous month.

The ONS said there had been some anecdotal information about adverse weather affecting the businesses of a small number of its respondents during February and March.

However, it said that while this could have contributed to the decline, it was difficult to quantify its exact impact on the industry.

Construction output grew in the last two months of 2017 and reached a record high.

It peaked in December at a level approaching a third (30.3%) higher than the lowest point of the last five years, in April 2013.

The ONS said that despite the fall in March, output was still 22.7% above that level.

Allan Callaghan, managing director of Cruden Building, said: “While disappointing, these figures come at a period where the housebuilding sector is traditionally at its most productive, with the longer, drier days supporting increased work on the ground.

“Furthermore, we’re seeing strong demand for modern and affordable housing across the country and I would expect this trend to continue.

“The ongoing skills shortage remains a crucial challenge for this sector,” he added.

“Without skilled labour we cannot increase output to the levels needed to tackle issues such as the housing gap.

“At Cruden we are proactively addressing this and are currently recruiting this year’s intake of around 15 apprentices across a variety of trades and skills through our Cruden Academy.

“These direct apprentices will become part of our 90-strong team of apprentices that we train every year across the group.”

In financial terms the fall in construction output was £1043 billion, with the most noticeable decline in repair and maintenance work, which saw decreases in both housing and non-housing repair and maintenance – falls of £211 million and £180m respectively.

The private housing sector, which has experienced consistent growth since last June, fell by £139m.

ONS said the only positive contribution to growth came from the relatively small and volatile private industrial sector, which increased by £20m over the quarter after four consecutive periods of contraction.

Mark Robinson, chief executive of builder Scape Group, added: “Today’s ONS construction data shows that the industry continued to struggle in March, as the unseasonal weather impacted the speed of project delivery and new work commencing. However, we can expect the data to pick up following the CIPS/Markit announcement last week, which shows that activity rebounded in April.

“It is very positive to see that private residential building increased by £6m on the year – but this growth is still not anywhere near the levels needed to meet housebuilding targets.”