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UK economy slows sharply in first quarter as inflation hits home

Britain's economy slowed sharply in the first three months of 2017 as higher inflation, boosted by last year's Brexit vote, hurt retailers and other consumer-focused businesses.

Gross domestic product growth slowed to a one-year low of 0.3 percent from 0.7 percent in the last three months of 2016, the Office for National Statistics said on Friday. This was a bigger fall in the quarterly growth rate than the drop to 0.4 percent forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.

As Britain heads for an early election on June 8, which Prime Minister Theresa May called to strengthen her mandate before Britain leaves the EU in 2019, the figures are likely to add to concerns that last year's robust growth is fading.

Britain's economy grew 1.8 percent last year - alongside Germany the fastest rate of growth among the world's seven largest major advanced economies, defying widespread predictions of recession after the vote to leave the European Union.

But the Brexit vote did lead to a big fall in the value of sterling, which is now starting to push up inflation and eat into consumers' disposable income.

"Retail trade and accommodation services were the main contributors to the negative growth in the (services) sector. These industries were impacted by increases in prices," the ONS said.

Official data last week showed the biggest quarterly fall in retail sales since 2010. Consumer price inflation is rising at its fastest since September 2013 as companies pass on higher costs caused by sterling's slide in value since the Brexit vote.

Other measures are also showing a softening in the economy, too.

Nationwide, one of Britain's biggest mortgage lenders, said earlier on Friday that houses prices fell for the second month in a row in April, taking the annual rate of price increase to its slowest in almost four years.

GfK's index of consumer sentiment also weakened, though some other measures of retail sales have shown a rebound in April and private-sector surveys of manufacturers and house-builders are buoyant.

The ONS said GDP growth in year-on-year terms rose to 2.1 percent from 1.9 percent in the final three months of 2016. This was the strongest rate since the second quarter of 2015, but slightly weaker than with economists' average forecast of a pick-up to 2.2 percent.

The Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund forecast growth of 2.0 percent for this year, before a modest slowdown in 2018, while most private-sector economists see a rather weaker expansion this year.

Britain's dominant services sector grew by 0.3 percent in the first quarter, the weakest rate in two years, after growth of 0.8 percent in late 2016, the ONS said. Industrial output also rose 0.3 percent while construction expanded by 0.2 percent.

In February alone, services output rose by 0.2 percent to give 2.4 percent growth on the year.

The preliminary estimates of GDP do not include a breakdown of spending, and are heavily based on estimated data.