Inflation has rolled back for the first time since June, helping households to cope with the relentless pressure on their finances.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) eased to 3% in December, down from 3.1% in November when inflation reached its highest level since March 2012.
The outcome was in line with expectations, with some economists believing Britain’s soaring inflation has now peaked following sterling’s collapse since the Brexit vote.
However, ONS senior statistician James Tucker said it was “too early to say” whether the fall was part of a long-term trend.
The drop was largely caused by air fares, but falling price tags on clothes and toys also pulled costs lower.
The slowdown of inflation takes the pressure off the Bank of England to hike interest rates beyond 0.5% in the coming months.
Sterling slipped against the US dollar following the announcement, falling 0.2% to 1.37. Against the euro, the pound was broadly flat at 1.12.
Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, said the inflation fall will provide a “small relief” to households, but oil prices could keep everyday costs higher.
She added: “A rise in oil prices together with the lagged effect of sterling’s earlier falls, which is expected to take some time before being fully passed on to consumers, will continue to provide upward pressure on prices.”
The lion’s share of the downward pressure in December came from air fares, which counted for a smaller slice of the basket of goods and services in 2017 than the year before.
It means the cost of air travel dragged on overall prices, despite growing by 52.8% month-on-month in December, compared with a 48.9% rise in 2016.
Food and non-alcoholic drinks also recorded smaller monthly growth of 0.6%, down from 0.8% in December 2016.
UK CPI #inflation merely edged down to 3.0% in December, but core inflation fell to 2.5%, from 2.7%, undershooting consensus. Airfares were the main driver, but inflation in the rest of the services sector weakened too. No pressure on the MPC to rush the next rate hike. pic.twitter.com/ZjfdJBa2YC— Samuel Tombs (@samueltombs) January 16, 2018
The smaller expansion was partly driven by a fall in the cost of vegetables, including premium crisps.
In contrast, tobacco was applying upward pressure in response to tax increases announced in the autumn Budget.
Costs lifted by 2.7% month-on-month in December, compared with a 0.2% rise for the same month in 2016.
At the pumps, motorists were facing higher fuel costs, with petrol up by 0.8p per litre on the month to 119.9p per litre.
Diesel also rose by 0.7p to 123.5p.
Howard Archer, chief economic adviser to the EY ITEM Club, expects inflation to ease as 2018 progresses.
He said: “Admittedly, the rise in Brent oil prices to a three-year high of 70 US dollars a barrel in mid-January increases the risk that inflation could be sticky in the near term.
“However, this should be at least partly countered by sterling rising to its highest level against the dollar since the June 2016 Brexit vote.
“Specifically, we expect consumer price inflation to fall back to 2.1% by the end of 2018.”
The Retail Prices Index (RPI), a separate measure of inflation, was 4.1% last month, up from 3.9% in November.
The Consumer Prices Index including owner-occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) – the ONS’ preferred measure of inflation – reached 2.7% in December, down from 2.8% for the month before.
A Treasury spokesman said: “We are helping families with their everyday costs of living by banning unfair credit card fees, freezing alcohol and fuel duties, boosting wages and cutting tax bills, as we build an economy fit for the future.”