Britain's construction sector grew at the fastest pace in nearly a year in February and firms grew more optimistic as order inflow picked up strongly, adding to the chances that Britain's economy will recover quickly from a contraction last quarter.

The headline Markit/CIPS construction Purchasing Managers'Index published on Friday jumped to 54.3 from 51.4 in January, hitting the highest level since March 2011.

Most analysts had predicted a fall, and the actual number easily beat even the most optimistic prediction.

The rise in output was supported by a stronger commercial expansion, said Markit economist Sarah Bingham. Residential construction and civil engineering activity also increased, rebounding from contractions last month.

Perhaps more encouraging was the sharp increase in new business received, which should keep firms busy in the coming months, she said.

The survey showed that new orders rose at the fastest pace in 21 months and firms' optimism about future business reached the highest level in nine months.

Increased visibility on pipeline work was frequently cited as a boost to confidence, Markit said.

However, expectations for an improved outlook at clients, new marketing initiatives and better economic conditions were also noted.

Britain's manufacturers reported further growth in February, albeit at a slower pace, the sector's PMI showed on Thursday.

Together with a contraction in manufacturing, a drop in construction output had been the driver of the shrinkage in the overall economy in the final quarter of 2011.

But British housebuilders have struck a more optimistic tone recently after they reported big leaps in profit for 2011.

Many builders have snapped up cheaper land in recent years to push up their margins and have concentrated on selling more houses, rather than cheaper apartments, in areas where house prices have remained resilient.

House price surveys have also indicated that the sluggish housing market is gaining a touch of momentum. (Reporting by Sven Egenter, sven-markus.egenter@thomsonreuters.com; +44 (20) 7542 7708; Reuters Messaging: sven-markus.egenter.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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