A surge last winter in mortgages for purposes unconnected with housing petered out in the spring months of this years, despite a quickening housing market which was again driving house prices higher.

The Bank of England reported yesterday that home-owners unlocked £11.29 billion in "mortgage equity withdrawal" in the second quarter of 2005, 5.2 per cent of the nation's after-tax income, down from £12.87 billion or 5.9 per cent of income in the first three months.

It was also less than withdrawals of £11.66 billion or 5.5 per cent of income in the final months of 2005 - and well short of a peak of £17.14 billion of equity withdrawal recorded in the final three months of 2003.

Some economists suggested the fall could reflect a reluctance on the part of consumers to take on more debt.

But Vicky Redwood, UK economist at Capital Economics, pointed out: "Only a fraction of the money being freed up is being spent, with a lot of it being passed on to children or paying off unsecured debt."

Howard Archer at Global Insight agreed: "Mortgage equity withdrawal is substantially used for other purposes than funding consumer spending, such as reducing debts, investing in other financial assets and topping up pensions.

"A significant proportion of mortgage equity withdrawal may be due to older people whose children have left home trading down and using the proceeds to supplement their pensions." He also noted that the £24.2 billion withdrawn over the first half of this year was well up on £16.3 billion in the same months last year and £20.9 billion in the second half of 2005.

Alliance & Leicester, which has recently completed research on attitudes towards equity release, said the Bank of England's figures were in line with its findings.

An A&L spokesman said: "The latest figures on mortgage equity withdrawal are part of a wider trend of greater prudence in borrowing - people are still withdrawing equity, but they are doing so at a lower level."