HOPES that the UK economy might at last be establishing a slightly firmer footing have been dealt a significant blow by official figures showing household spending grew just 0.1% in the first quarter, while exports and investment fell sharply.

The continuing absence of the rebalancing of the economy targeted by Chancellor George Osborne, who in his March 2011 Budget spelled out his vision of a "Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers", was underlined yesterday in the figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). With exports falling, net trade continued to prove a drag on UK economic performance.

While the ONS maintained its calculation that the UK avoided triple-dip recession in the first quarter with a 0.3% rise in gross domestic product (GDP), in line with its first estimate published last month, the breakdown of output in the latest figures underlines the scale of the challenges facing the economy.

Martin Beck, UK economist at consultancy Capital Economics, warned in the wake of the latest GDP data: "The foundations for recovery remain rickety."

Howard Archer, chief UK economist at consultancy IHS Global Insight, said: "The breakdown of the data is rather disappointing, and not that supportive to hopes that the economy is establishing a firmer footing."

The disappointing GDP breakdown came a day after the International Monetary Fund called on the UK Government to do more to speed up slow economic recovery, hinting that the country might be able to afford to borrow more to fund investment.

Growth of UK household spending in the opening three months of 2013 was the weakest since the third quarter of 2011.

Exports fell by 0.8% in the first quarter, and were down 1.8% on the opening three months of 2012.

Highlighting a 0.8% fall in total investment in the first quarter, and noting a drag from net trade that reduced GDP growth by 0.1 percentage points in the first quarter, Mr Beck said: "Aspirations for 'rebalancing' look increasingly forlorn."

Economists highlighted the part stock-building had played in boosting first-quarter GDP. The boost from such rises in inventories, by its nature, tends to be fleeting.

Government spending was unchanged quarter-on-quarter in the opening three months of this year.

Mr Archer said: "Growth on the expenditure side of the economy was driven by a 0.4-percentage-point contribution from the inventories and statistical adjustment element. Consumer spending only edged up 0.1% quarter-on-quarter, while there were declines in investment and exports, which hardly points to an economy rebalancing.

"Meanwhile, Government spending was flat as spending cuts likely increasingly impacted."

The ONS left unrevised its calculation that UK manufacturing output had fallen by 0.3% in the first quarter.

This left it 2.1% lower than in the same period of last year.

Figures published by the ONS on Wednesday showed UK retail sales dropped by 1.3% month-on-month in April.

And a survey published by the Confederation of British Industry showed that UK manufacturers' output volumes were broadly flat over the three months to May, defying firms' hopes of a strong increase.

Although highlighting some signs of momentum in the UK services sector, Mr Beck warned: "The sharp fall in retail sales in April, and May's disappointing CBI industrial trends survey, should inject a note of caution into the belief that the UK economy is in sight of the sunlit uplands. And, with both employment and earnings falling in the first quarter, the IMF's view that the UK is 'still a long way from a strong and sustainable recovery' seems hard to disagree with."