Consultancy survey: Staffing levels

Optimism about recruitment plans is widespread among planning consultants, finds Domenic Donatantonio.

Just as was the case in 2010, UK consultancy managers face tough decisions about whether to expand their planning teams in the year ahead. But although many are waiting until the government's planning reforms crystallise and the economic situation becomes clearer, even more expect to recruit extra planners next year.

Despite the uncertainties, 42 per cent of the 116 who answered this year's survey question on the matter predicted that their planning consultancy teams will grow over the next 12 months. Of the rest, 34 per cent are unsure, leaving only a quarter certain that they will not expand over that period.

Main UK planning teams by regions and nations

Infographic: Leading employers of chartered town planners 2011

Growth of leading employers of planners 1997-2011


The total number of corporate members of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) employed by the 153 firms responding to the survey stood at 2,021 on 1 September, a fall of just 26 on last year's snapshot. But the 97 firms that provided data for both surveys showed an aggregate increase in chartered town planners, from 1,756 to 1,789.

Many of these individuals are operating at a senior level: 34 per cent are directors or partners and another 30 per cent are associates or equivalent grades. Thirty-four per cent are women, a similar proportion to last year. But only 14 per cent of the female planners are directors or partners, with another 35 per cent operating as associates or equivalent. Just over half are employed in more junior grades.

For non-corporate RTPI membership grades, the survey records 141 technical members, 30 associates and just two legal associates. The number of student or licentiate members fell from 293 last year to 243 this September, of whom 45 per cent are women. Meanwhile, qualified planners' activities are complemented by a greater number - around 2,500 - of other professional fee earners.

So what are the prospects for these figures rising in 2012? It all depends on the market, but plenty of commentators see room for optimism. "We believe there will be lively demand for our planning services, especially if the High Speed 2 rail project is ratified by the government at the end of the year," says Alastair Crowdy, director of planning, development and regeneration at GL Hearn.

Martin Herbert, director of town planning and environment at URS Scott Wilson, takes a similar view. Once the government's planning reforms settle, he believes, developers will begin promoting schemes and the demand for planning, masterplanning and policy advice will slowly return. But he warns: "This optimism has to be tempered with the continuing adverse affect on confidence from external factors, principally the continued reluctance of banks to lend money and international concerns over economic stability."

Bidwells partner Paul Clarke detects a rise in activity from housing developers and private equity-funded projects. "We see a growth in business primarily through investors taking a long-term view on returns," he says. "We have noticed a number of major national housebuilders returning to the market and looking at a range of sites that can deliver units relatively quickly."

But Lambert Smith Hampton partner Mark Dodds says the housing market is only likely to recover late next year. "We are eagerly awaiting results from the government's consultation on proposals to allow the conversion of offices to residential use," he says. "We have done a fair amount of work on the Community Infrastructure Levy, working with five or six councils and bidding for work with a handful more, looking mainly at the viability of affordable housing."

CgMs Consulting director John Stockdale says the infrastructure sector has helped tide firms through the downturn. "Clients such as National Grid have major investment programmes ahead to cater for future energy requirements. We are also involved in wind farms and other sources of renewable energy," he says. But he remains cautious about expansion: "The fee position is still extremely competitive and margins are being squeezed, which makes it difficult to reinvest in growth."

Some firms see public sector involvement as a mainstay. Knight Frank partner Martin Fellows says that public land disposal is a key area. "Landowners can take a longer-term view on their assets, so we are reasonably optimistic about this area," he says. At AECOM, Europe managing director for planning, design and development Andrew Jones highlights the firm's public sector work in deprived areas, including the enterprise zones such as the Royal Docks in east London, as being central to its 2010/11 performance.

The recruitment picture varies across the leading firms. GL Hearn has added eight chartered planners to its team in the past year and predicts a 30 per cent boost in fee income in 2011/12. "We have brought in a number of big industry names to help lead our drive for growth," says Crowdy. He is confident that the team will grow further next year. "It's about ensuring we have the strongest service offering in the sectors we focus on," he says.

At Bidwells, Clarke reports that staff numbers have fallen this past year through redundancies and a freeze on replacing departed staff. But with work fairly stable in the middle of 2011, the firm aims to take on graduates in some offices. "Assuming this trend continues, we will be appointing staff periodically through next year," he predicts.

Stockdale says CgMs staffing have stabilised since 2008/09, when it cut numbers. The firm has seen a net rise of three chartered planners in the past year, partly due to taking over Cushman & Wakefield's planning team in August, he explains. "Over the next 12 months, we are probably going to recruit at a more junior level, but it's a difficult balance given the pressure on fees and margins," he warns.

Among medium-sized practices, D&M Planning is down by one chartered planner overall since last year due to two retirements. "We will probably replace them with one or two new members of staff in the next 12 months," says director Paul Darking. Bell Cornwell partner Linda Saunders says the firm is on a constant lookout for talent. "Working with local authority planners gives us a good idea of how they perform before we make an approach," she says.

Barton Willmore senior partner Ian Tant sees some scope for team growth in areas where the market remains comparatively strong, particularly energy and retail. Like most consultants contacted, he finds few problems with recruitment, given the excess of supply over demand. "By and large, we have little difficulty finding people with the right skills, but this varies regionally, particularly at more senior levels," he says.

Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners managing director Jim Fennell says the firm has appointed a "good number" of graduates in each of the past two years, along with a small number of senior appointments to boost growth in particular sectors. Herbert of URS Scott Wilson also finds advantages in hiring trainee planners. "The company is taking on people who have demonstrated a commitment to the profession and it is an opportunity to invest in their career progression," he says.

Although the number of chartered planners at AECOM has fallen by four over the past 12 months, Jones says that graduate recruitment is bridging the gap. "A targeted recruitment plan has seen three graduates and one qualified planner newly employed by the practice. The recruitment of planning experts hasn't been a problem, with no shortage of interest in advertised roles," he says.

This position may not hold for long. The survey showed that 54 per cent of consultants fear the profession will face a serious skills shortage within the next five years, with only 15 per cent actively disagreeing. "There is likely to be a shortage of very experienced planners and planning managers. As councils and consultancies reduced their capacity during the recession, a great many experienced people left planning altogether," says Dave Jolley, planning director at Urban Vision.

In addition, the range of skills that clients require is changing. "We have already seen the impact of the localism agenda on demand for our consultation and engagement services, and that can only increase in future," says Fennell. "But it arises from the need for development. Our focus will be even more on the relevance of neighbourhood planning to businesses and how they might get involved."

Crowdy says GL Hearn clients basically look to his team to enable development. "That requires commercial, development, economic analysis and strategic communications skills to reflect the new planning regime. We are concentrating on commercially minded people who can be proactive and innovative," he says. Dodds says Lambert Smith Hampton is after graduates who can look beyond policy requirements and see the development opportunities on unallocated sites.

Recruitment prospects vary across the regions. Most major consultancies agree that recovery in the main development sectors will be led by London and the South East. "There is a pressing need in London for planners," says Fellows at Knight Frank. Herbert says URS Scott Wilson's deployment of planners reflects a disparity in the English market. "We have expanded our teams in London and Basingstoke but numbers in the north have reduced slightly through natural wastage," he says.

Outside the South East, several commentators see the North West as the strongest growth area. Fellows expects recruitment in Knight Frank's Manchester office, while Crowdy says GL Hearn is performing strongly in the region. Manchester now hosts Barton Willmore's tenth office, opened in January. "We are unlikely to spread further in the coming year. but we certainly have no plans for retraction in our network," says Tant.

Having opened a Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners office in Leeds this year, Fennell says he is pleased with the response from existing and new clients. The Midlands is his next priority. "Our aim is to get a critical mass in each major conurbation, so a base in Birmingham or one of the East Midlands cities would be attractive. We remain entrepreneurial in our thinking about other office openings if the right people present themselves," he says.

There is also a regional dimension to Peter Brett Associates' merger with Roger Tym & Partners and Baker Associates this spring. Partner John Parmiter says the planning team will grow at PBA's base in Reading, while the Baker Associates tie-in has introduced planning skills to its Bristol office. "We are looking at opportunities to introduce planning skills into the Birmingham office and transport planning in Manchester," he adds.

Commenting further on the deal, Parmiter says: "We can see work gradually increasing and fee levels are slightly less sensitive for clients, but we have to be cautious. We are seeing more work on hydrology and geotechnical issues. Retail projects, for example, will often generate issues over transport, ground conditions and flood risk. We are increasingly joining these things up."

Although many firms are reluctant to disclose fee rates, the survey reveals a range from £240 to £2,000 a day. The going daily rate for even a junior planner's services at 16 of the firms providing data starts at £500. At the top end of the scale, 33 firms say they may bill a four-figure sum per consultant for a day's work, and 12 of these say their charges can exceed £1,500 a day.

A cautious return to fee rate rises at some practices is in prospect. Based on responses from 99 firms, it appears that fee rates rose by an average of one per cent in the year to 1 September, matching the figure in last year's survey. For the year ahead, however, the average expectation is that fee rates will increase by a healthier three per cent.

Out of the 101 firms responding to this question, 37 say they will push up fee rates in 2011/12, although only ten are confident enough of their market to propose a hike of ten per cent or more. Only six firms accept that their charges will have to be cut from 2010/11 levels. The majority of firms - 58 out of 101 - are pegging their fees at last year's rates.

"Fee rates remain constrained," says Tant, who says Barton Willmore has no plans at present to raise rates. "It's been some time since it was last possible to increase rates. This is an increasing challenge, given rising business costs such as those related to travel and rising living costs for our staff. It remains to be seen how much longer the consultancy sector can hold its rates at current levels."

Additional reporting by Bryan Johnston

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Main UK planning teams by regions and nations
Growth of leading employers

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