UK inflation unexpectedly held close to its highest level in nearly six years in January, highlighting the challenge facing the Bank of England and reinforcing expectations of a rise in interest rates in May. 

Consumer price inflation was steady at an annual rate of 3% in January, unchanged from December, the Office for National Statistics said. 

UK inflation had hit its highest since March 2012 in November at 3.1%. 

Sterling rose after today's data and was up by 0.5% agains the dollar this morning. 

Inflation jumped in Britain after the June 2016 decision by voters to leave the European Union, which hammered the value of the pound and pushed up the cost of imports. 

By contrast, many other countries are facing below-target inflation despite strong economic growth. 

The Bank of England surprised investors last week by saying interest rates would need to rise sooner and by somewhat more than it had previously expected, as it wanted to get inflation back to target within two years rather than three. 

Markets priced in as much as a 70% chance of a quarter-point rise in interest rates by May, and a roughly 50% chance of a further increase in rates to 1% by the end of the year - a level last seen in 2009. 

Economists said inflation appeared to have peaked as the impact of the pound's fall after the Brexit vote began to fade.

But signs of a pick-up in wages suggested that price growth might be slower to fall than the Bank of England hoped. 

Today's CPI data showed downward pressure on inflation from a lesser increase in fuel prices than a year ago. But the ONS highlighted a smaller than usual seasonal decline in the cost of visiting zoos and gardens as pushing up on price growth. 

Core consumer price inflation - which excludes food, energy, alcohol and tobacco - rose to 2.7% from 2.5%, and services price inflation, which is more sensitive to wage costs, also accelerated. 

Bank of England policymakers have pointed to rising wages as a possible reason to increase rates, although headline data still shows average growth in weekly earnings well below the rate of inflation, squeezing on living standards. 

The ONS figures suggested less pressure in the pipeline for food and manufactured goods. 

Among manufacturers, the cost of raw materials - many of them imported - was 4.7% higher than in January 2016, the smallest increase since July 2016. 

Economists polled by Reuters had expected input prices to rise by 4.2%. 

UK manufacturers increased the prices they charged by 2.8%, less than the consensus forecast of 3% and the smallest increase since November 2016.