* 2012 pretax profit 225.1 mln stg vs forecast 215.8 mln
* Mortgage rates fell in first 8 weeks of 2013
By Clare Hutchison
LONDON, Feb 25 (Reuters) - The British government's drive to boost mortgage lending is starting to work and support the housing market, the country's biggest housebuilder said on Monday.
With incomes squeezed by a protracted recession and crisis-hit banks looking to rein in lending, the government has come under pressure to help home buyers and support a housing market seen as vital to consumer confidence.
Shares in Britain's housebuilders have risen sharply following the introduction of government-backed schemes like the "Funding for Lending," which offers incentives for banks to lend, and "First Buy" for first-time purchasers.
Persimmon, Britain's biggest housebuilder by market value, said on Monday it was now starting to feel the benefits.
"In the first 8 weeks of this year we have seen (mortgage) rates come down by anything up to 45 basis points. If you talk to lenders, there is a bit more of an appetite to be in the mortgage market so it's coming through on both fronts," chief executive Mike Farley told Reuters after Persimmon reported a forecast-beating 52 percent rise in pretax profit for last year.
Farley said he expected to see steady progress in the housing market as the British economy, which had its credit rating downgraded one notch by Moody's on Friday, remained weak.
"I think it will be gradual improvement rather than large scale improvement because of the general economy as a whole. Nevertheless the sentiment is more positive for the year as we start off than it has been for a while."
Last month, Bank of England figures showed loan approvals for house purchase in Britain rose in December to their highest level since January 2012, and net mortgage lending increased by the biggest amount since April.
Persimmon said it had made a strong start to 2013, with forward sales reaching 1 billion pounds ($1.5 billion).
Pretax profit for the year ended Dec. 31 was 225.1 million, helped by sales of large family homes. Analysts had on average expected a profit of 215.8 million pounds, according to a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S poll of 14.
Persimmon shares, which have surged 40 percent in the last year, were down 0.7 percent to 902.74 pence at 1055 GMT.
The firm, which has been allocated plots of land that can be sold under the First Buy scheme, is well-placed to take advantage of government initiatives, said Cenkos Securities analyst Kevin Cammack.
"On balance the initiatives should help them a little bit more than most because they are positioned a bit more into that market (for first time buyers) and of course they are truly national so they can use that as marketing tool throughout regions," he said.
Britain's big housebuilders have coped with a stagnant property market thanks to snapping up cheap development land at the depths of the financial crisis, selling more expensive family homes rather than flats, and building homes in the more affluent south, where house prices have stayed strong.
Persimmon, whose brands include Persimmon Homes, Charles Church and Westbury Partnerships, said it completed 9,903 homes last year, up from 9,360 in 2011, and that its average sales price rose 6 percent to 175,640 pounds.
It added about 14,800 plots to its land bank over 2012, taking the total to 68,200, representing 6.9 years of supply.
In February last year Persimmon announced a plan to return 1.9 billion pounds to shareholders over 9 years. The company said it was on track to make its first dividend payment of 75 pence per share in June 2013.