LONDON (Reuters) - Home loan approvals in Britain rose last month to the highest since January 2012, a sign that a Bank of England scheme may be starting to boost the flow of credit and support a flagging economy.
Net mortgage lending also jumped sharply to its highest level since April, offering hope that the bank's Funding for Lending Scheme - which went into operation in August - is starting to bear fruit.
The scheme is a response to worries that ultra-low official interest rates and the extra funds the bank has pumped into the financial system are not getting through to households and businesses.
The lack of lending has contributed to a grim economic outlook that has brought Britain to the verge of a "triple-dip" recession.
"On the face of it, those figures would support the Bank of England's claims that the FLS is starting to make its presence felt," said Peter Dixon, economist at Commerzbank.
"We would need to see a few more months of good data before we can validate the claim, but at least we're moving in the right direction," he said.
There was no immediate market reaction to the data.
Mortgage approvals rose to 55,785 in December from 54,011 in November, above analysts' expectations and the highest since January 2012, when the imminent end of a government incentive for first-time home-buyers boosted demand.
Net mortgage lending increased by 1.036 billion pounds ($1.63 billion), the largest amount since April, and interest rates on new secured loans to households fell to their lowest since April as well.
Evidence of benefit for businesses in Wednesday's data was less clear, though one measure of lending to firms posted its smallest annual percentage fall since November 2011.
Before the 2008 financial crisis, monthly mortgage approvals ran at around 90,000, but the number of home sales has slumped since then and the property market has largely ceased to be a major driver of consumer spending.
Last week similar data from the British Bankers' Association showed a tick up in mortgage approvals in December, although they were 4 percent down on the year.
Overall net household lending rose by 1.685 billion pounds after stagnating the month before. Within that, unsecured consumer lending rose by 649 million pounds, the biggest rise since September and a much stronger increase than forecast.
A quarterly Bank survey found that British banks planned to increase the supply of mortgages in early 2013 after a record rise in the availability of this type of credit in the three months to December. The poll also pointed to an improvement in terms on which loans are extended.
The BoE's preferred gauge of money supply, M4 excluding intermediate other financial corporations, rose 5.2 percent on the year, the sharpest rise since the second quarter of 2008.
Britain's economy shrank more than expected at the end of 2012, with a slump in oil production, lower factory output and a hangover from the London Olympics pushing it to the brink of its third recession since 2008.
Reporting by David Milliken and Olesya Dmitracova; editing by Patrick Graham