GDP set to pass pre-crisis levels

Bicester Advertiser: The UK economy grew by 0.8% in the first quarter, new figures show The UK economy grew by 0.8% in the first quarter, new figures show

The UK economy is on the cusp of surpassing its pre-crisis peak after a fifth successive quarter of growth.

Official figures showed gross domestic product (GDP) was just 0.6% below its level before the recession in 2008 and is now expected to surpass it in the current period.

The 0.8% increase compared to the previous quarter was slightly below expectations of 0.9% growth but GDP was 3.1% higher than the same period of 2013, the best year-on-year rise since the end of 2007.

It was also the first time there had been five successive quarters of growth since 2007. Poor weather during the period failed to have an effect on overall GDP.

Chancellor George Osborne hailed the data as vindication of his economic policies, a year after a dire warning from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about the impact of austerity.

He said: "Today's figures show that Britain is coming back - but we can't take that for granted. We have to carry on working through our long-term economic plan."

Economists described it as a "Goldilocks" scenario with growth solid but not strong enough to stoke inflation fears or prompt a hike in interest rates.

The UK has been struggling to return to its previous levels of activity since it plunged into recession six years ago.

But Howard Archer, chief European and UK economist at IHS Global Insight, said this was now "back within touching distance".

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that by one measure, excluding the volatile impact of oil and gas production, the economy surpassed its pre-crisis peak and was already 0.3% ahead in the first quarter.

Manufacturing grew by 1.3%, its strongest quarterly performance for nearly four years, bolstering hopes of balanced recovery.

The powerhouse services sector, which represents three-quarters of the economy, grew by 0.9% on the quarter while construction, dampened by storms and heavy rain, expanded by a sluggish 0.3%.

Year-on-year comparisons showed manufacturing up 3.4%, construction up 5.1% and services - a sector which has already recovered to pre-recession levels - was up 3%.

Manufacturing remains 7.7% below its pre-crisis peak while construction is still 12.2% behind.

Mr Osborne said: "For the first time in a decade, all three main sectors of the economy have grown by at least 3% over the last year.

"The impact of the great recession is still being felt, but the foundations for a broad-based recovery are now in place."

The figures add to the economic cheer for the Chancellor, weeks after figures showing pay was rising at a faster level than inflation for the first time since 2010.

They came as Bank of England governor Mark Carney told the Bristol Post: "There is every sign that the recovery is starting to broaden out and I would describe our attitude at the moment as prudently optimistic."

Deloitte chief economist Ian Stewart said: "The UK economy is in the sweet spot of the economic cycle, with growth powering ahead of our major competitors and inflation falling away.

"Business investment and consumer incomes, two conspicuous gaps in Britain's recovery, are making a comeback. This is the Goldilocks moment for the UK economy, with growth neither too hot nor too cold."

The update comes a year after fears that Britain was about to plunge into an unprecedented "triple-dip" recession and the IMF's Olivier Blanchard warned that Mr Osborne was "playing with fire" with his austerity measures.

Now the IMF has sharply backtracked and expects the UK to be the world's fastest-growing major advanced economy in 2014 with a revised growth forecast of 2.9%.

John Allan, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the latest GDP figures mirrored rising confidence among firms.

But shadow chancellor Ed Balls said: "Millions of hardworking people are still feeling no recovery at all."

Figures from the GMB union suggested an increase in the population meant GDP per head was still 5.7% below 2007 levels, with real-terms wages down 13.8%.

General secretary Paul Kenny said: "In the real world, people know that while the recovery under way is welcome, we have a very long way to go to climb out of the hole caused by the recession."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "Pay and job prospects are still below pre-crash levels, and there will need to be many more years of figures like today's before ordinary families recover lost ground."

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