Planning Consultancy Survey 2010

Confusion over the government's localism plans is clouding growth hopes for practices but housing and infrastructure sectors are seen as leading the recovery, Bryan Johnston finds.

The world of planning consultancy remains in a state of flux. As if a volatile economic climate were not enough, the advent of a coalition government committed to draconian public spending cuts and devolution of power has caused further waves of anguish.

Uncertainty is the order of the day. A third of consultants think that the economic climate for development will improve in the next 12 months, a third don't believe it will and a third just don't know. Ninety per cent fear that localism will encourage community resistance to development and only one in five believe that financial incentives will speed delivery.

The trend towards shedding staff and reductions in fee income revealed in last year's survey (Planning, 27 November 2009, p13-24) has become entrenched over the ensuing 12 months. But there are some grounds for optimism. Forty per cent of consultants expect their teams to be augmented in the next 12 months.

The main development sectors all declined in 2009-10 but consultants expect most of them to inch back onto a growth curve by the end of 2010-11. In particular, the average expectation is that housing consultancy will rise five per cent - although whether that will translate into actual delivery is another matter.

The picture on services is patchier. Investor interest and the urgent need to upgrade UK infrastructure should keep energy, waste and water services on an upward track, but the impending cuts may signal tough times for companies with heavy involvement in transport, education and health facilities.

Consultants' role in strategic and local planning will remain shrouded in mystery until the coalition's intentions became clear. Regional planning input is likely to nosedive - the broken bar on the market change graph signifies a 48 per cent predicted drop this year - but further down the spatial scale consultants expect a modest increase in work.

Around three-quarters of consultants view delays in plan adoption and abolition of regional strategies as obstacles to development, while two-thirds agree that local authority planning team shortages are a major constraint on timely decisions. The move to localism seems unlikely to allay such concerns.

The survey was carried out and responses analysed by Lars Jespersen of Camargue Group Ltd.

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