Foreign affairs

Ben Willis and Mark Smulian look at the firms that emerged from our recent consultants survey as employing the most overseas-based chartered town planners.

The global pictures: Planning fee-earners are based internationall. ToastyKen photo
The global pictures: Planning fee-earners are based internationall. ToastyKen photo

The years following the 2008 economic crash have been tough for UK planning consultancies. However, in some parts of the world development has proceeded apace. In the Middle East, many gulf states have seen a development boom, while the rise of China and India as economic superpowers has required massive investment in infrastructure.

It is no surprise, then, that UK planners have sought work overseas. Here, we profile the ten firms with the highest number of chartered town planners stationed abroad based on responses to this year's Planning Consultancy Survey (Planning, 18 November, p23).

1. RPS Group

With 20 chartered town planners among 909 staff that it classifies as undertaking fee-paying planning work outside the UK, RPS Group tops our list of UK consultancies with the highest number of RTPI members based abroad.

Much of RPS's planning work is in Australia and Ireland. The broad range of work it undertakes in these countries reflects its activities in the UK, says business development manager Douglas Lamont.

"In Australia and Ireland, we do the full range of stuff: residential development, mixed-use development, retail, leisure," he says. "Everything we do in the UK, we're doing in Australia and Ireland, and there's no particularly predominant theme. We're very multidisciplinary."

Among its current crop of projects, RPS is providing planning advice and has managed the preparation of the environmental impact assessment for a new business faculty building on the University of Technology Sydney campus.

Beyond Australia and Ireland, RPS is also working in the Netherlands and in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. One piece of work in the Middle East that Lamont highlights is the masterplanning of a large industrial park outside Abu Dhabi. "It's a massive undertaking and we may be doing others in neighbouring countries fairly shortly," he says.

2. Arup

Arup has a broad mix of skills to draw on around the world, allowing the firm to take on a varied portfolio of work, says head of planning Jerome Frost.

"Our planning teams cover all the major disciplines: transport planning, town planning, environmental planning and airport planning," Frost explains. "In a way, that's how we've made our work overseas successful, because we can get involved in a diverse range of projects."

Projects include a regeneration scheme for the historic centre of Tshwane, formerly Pretoria, South Africa's capital. "This area has suffered because of investment leaving the city, so we're looking at ways of reinvigorating it and placing it back at the economic heart of the city," Frost says.

In terms of transport work, Arup is involved in producing a strategic rail plan for South Africa, and similar exercises in Australia and China.

3. Atkins

Atkins' overseas work has primarily focused on the Middle East, but more recently has included developing a software tool to plan low-carbon cities in India. According to Paul White, its director of environmental planning, a quarter of Atkins' planning revenue comes from international projects.

In keeping with the focus of Atkins' work generally, most of its overseas projects are infrastructure-based, covering areas such as transport, water and power - "all the big bits of kit people need for industry and city development," White says.

The company's involvement revolves around three core services: masterplanning, environmental impact assessments, and strategic planning and policy advice. As an example of the third of these, the company is currently working on a national planning strategy for Bahrain (see panel, overleaf).

White believes UK planning expertise is widely valued overseas. "In many parts of the world, British planners are recognised as being among the best planning professionals," he says.


Much of AECOM's international work involves planning for urban growth and is informed by its history of UK regeneration work. "Other places are facing similar growth challenges we once had, so we're able to bring that international experience," says European planning director Andrew Jones.

In China, the company has around 300 urban designers and masterplanners working as part of a multidisciplinary team. "We're working to bring forward major new settlements and doing a lot of work on economic growth as China expands and rapidly urbanises," Jones says.

The company is involved in similar work in the Middle East, where it has provided strategic planning advice to support the growth of cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. "We do a lot of strategic planning - city visioning - where our role is bringing forward urban growth objectives," Jones says.

4=. David Lock Associates

"British expertise is highly regarded abroad, which is quite a cheer-up given that the UK market is rather in turmoil," says Lawrence Revill, managing director of David Lock Associates.

The consultancy's overseas work is solely concerned with masterplanning large urban extensions, particularly in China. One of its most recent commissions is a development to accommodate 400,000 more people in Guiyang, the capital city of China's Guizhou province.

Revill says the key difference he has noticed with overseas work is that projects progress much quicker than in the UK.

"The pressure to get on is very strong, especially in China, so we find things get done to far tighter timescales than in the UK," Revill says. "People go through the masterplanning process in a short time, where it would take two or three years in the UK."

4=. Halcrow Group

The firm's international work covers planning services ranging from national down to local scale, says head of planning and urban design Asad Shaheed.

"At the national level, we produce physical development plans," he says. "We're working in Mauritius and Kuwait on those. So that's translating economic development policy into physical, spatial planning interventions."

Halcrow also undertakes city and regional planning, notably a recent project to produce an urban development framework for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. At a smaller scale, the company also provides planning services for individual industrial, residential and city centre developments.

In all cases, Shaheed says Halcrow benefits from having an international profile: "When anyone wants something that has an international element to it, they want someone who has experience across a number of geographies, so our international credentials are valued."

7=. BDP

Multidisciplinary firm BPD takes its town planning and masterplanning skills to China, a number of countries in the Middle East and the Netherlands, although it only has planning fee earners permanently based in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Instead, its UK-based planners offer support to the company's overseas offices when required.

In China, says director and head of urbanism Francis Glare, the company is particularly in demand for its urban design expertise. "To be able to offer urban design in tandem with town planning skills is attractive to the Chinese," he says. "Urban design is almost unknown in China and they're desperately trying to get to grips with it."

Typical projects in China (see panel) include the planning of urban expansion schemes and entirely new towns on greenfield and brownfield land. In the Middle East, where BDP operates in Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, its work involves a mixture of town planning frameworks and masterplans for leisure and residential developments.

"We stick to the physical and cultural context of each place in which we work," says Glare. "So while we're taking British ideas abroad, we're not trying to impose British values on other cultures."

7=. SLR Consulting

SLR Consulting's burgeoning operation in southern Africa focuses on minerals, waste and energy. "Banks increasingly require environmental impact assessments before they will lend to minerals and energy projects there, which is what we do," says David Sandbrook, SLR's technical director and head of planning and estate management. "Assessments there are much more concerned with socioeconomic impacts than landscape and ecological issues, so people gain wider experience, which is great for staff development."

SLR is active in Australia, where it also offers town and infrastructure planning services. Sandbrook says the company's UK office also works closely with its Irish counterpart.

9=. Hyder Consulting

Hyder Consulting's overseas planning work has included projects in the Caribbean, China and the Middle East, where the company offers a mixture of services. "Our core skills are around masterplanning and general strategic planning," says Owen Davies, Hyder's associate business director for planning. "We also support processes around sustainability, community and stakeholder involvement, and tourism planning."

Until recently Hyder was heavily involved in the Caribbean market, although this side of the company's work has fallen off due to recession. Hyder's projects in the Caribbean included the production of a development plan for the island of Nevis.

The company is now eyeing future opportunities in the Middle East, which Davies expects to open up for business in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

9=. URS Scott Wilson

Louise Porteous, head of URS Scott Wilson's global development team, says the company works around the world, but has a particular focus on Africa, where it has had a presence for 80 years.

Porteous has found that the overseas market has moved away from "pretty picture masterplanning", where consultants were asked to produce grand concepts, as governments in developing countries have found them difficult to realise.

Instead, the emphasis is on infrastructure and minerals, and the firm's work mostly involves producing environmental impact assessments for these projects and the growth to which they give rise.

Porteous gives the example of gold and iron ore mining projects in Mauritania, which involve the provision of water, power and road infrastructure, planning to accommodate people in thousands of new jobs and social programmes to alleviate poverty. "Because they are in developing countries, we find our projects include all three fields of planning, environment management and social development," Porteous says.

Big Overseas Employers
Consultants ranked by number of chartered town planners employed

Company Non-UK Non-UK Non-UK Locations4
CTPs1 fee fee income3
earners2 (pounds)

1 RPS Group 20 909 93,000,000 Australia, Ireland,
Netherlands, United
Arab Emirates (UAE)
2 Arup 7 500 Not disclosed Australia, China,
Ireland, Hong Kong,
South Africa, USA
3 Atkins 6 25 5,000,000 Bahrain, India, Oman,
Qatar, UAE
4= AECOM 3 1,245 Not disclosed Australia, China,
United Arab Emirates,
4= David Lock 3 8 1,750,000 Australia, China,
Associates France, Nigeria
4= Halcrow 3 20 Not disclosed Argentina, Australia,
Group Canada, China, India,
Kuwait, Mauritius,
Poland, Qatar, Romania,
Syria, UAE
7= BDP 2 2 400,000 Kuwait, UAE
7= SLR 2 12 Not disclosed Australia, Democratic
Consulting Republic of Congo,
Ireland, Namibia, South
Africa, Zambia
9= Hyder 1 4 20,000 China, UAE
9= URS Scott 1 70 6,100,000 Angola, Azerbaijan,
Wilson Brazil, Cameroon,
Dominican Republic,
Equatorial Guinea,
Gabon, Georgia, Ghana,
Guinea, India, Kenya,
Kuwait, Liberia,
Mauritania, Mozambique,
Nigeria, Sierra Leone,
Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia

1. Number of chartered town planners permanently based abroad
2. Number of planning fee earners permanently based abroad
3. Income earned in 2010/11 by firm's non-UK planning fee earners
permanently based abroad, including chartered town planners
4. Countries where non-UK planning fee earners, including chartered town
planners, are based

The Global Picture: where the planning fee-earners are based

- Arup

- Halcrow Group

- Halcrow Group

- URS Scott Wilson

Dominican Republic
- URS Scott Wilson

- RPS Group

- Arup
- RPS Group
- SLR Consulting

- David Lock Associates

Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea &
- URS Scott Wilson

- Atkins

- BDP, Halcrow Group & URS Scott Wilson

- URS Scott Wilson

- URS Scott Wilson

- SLR Consulting

South Africa
- Arup
- SLR Consulting

- URS Scott Wilson

- David Lock Associates
- URS Scott Wilson

Democratic Republic of Congo
- SLR Consulting

- URS Scott Wilson

- URS Scott Wilson

- URS Scott Wilson

- SLR Consulting & URS Scott Wilson

- Halcrow Group

- Atkins & Halcrow Group

- Atkins

- AECOM, Atkins, Halcrow Group, Hyder Consulting & RPS Group

- Atkins
- Halcrow Group
- URS Scott Wilson

- Halcrow Group

- Halcrow Group

Georgia & Azerbaijan
- URS Scott Wilson

- Halcrow Group

- Arup
- David Lock Associates
- Halcrow Group
- RPS Group
- SLR Consulting

- Arup
- David Lock Associates
- Halcrow Group
- Hyder Consulting

Hong Kong
- Arup

The Overseas Experience: Potential lessons for the UK using visualisations in China

Francis Glare, Director and head of urbanism BDP

In China, there is an awful lot of emphasis on what schemes will look like. British planners have always shied away from that, the argument being that it's not for us to tell you what something should look like, we just prescribe how it should work. But in China, they have a strong emphasis on visualisation and very graphic communication of ideas and proposals. When we go and consult with the public in the UK and show people a map with pink and brown blobs, and arrows and dotted lines, they're understandably a bit suspicious or disinterested. In China, you're showing them a visualisation of a place, which for them is an easier way of engaging with planning and design proposals. It would be interesting to see how, without prejudging planning decisions, we could learn from that and bring a bit more technology and rapid visualisation into working methods in the UK.

Faster Planning in Bahrain

Roger Savage, Associate director Atkins

As an associate director, I lead some of our overseas projects. In Bahrain, we're working for the ministry of municipalities and urban planning, supporting their national planning and development strategy. Over the last year, we've been taking the plan forward by preparing new area action plans and looking at the legal framework for planning. For planners used to working in the UK, the benefit of working somewhere such as Bahrain is that things move much more quickly. The relatively non-hierarchical structure in many of the organisations in Bahrain and the keenness to get on with things is something that's perhaps lacking in the UK. From our point of view, it's been great to fairly quickly see the impact our work is having. It's also been useful to get an understanding of the mindsets of some of the investors in the Middle East. The focus on investment for growth is a hot topic in the UK and some of the investors in Bahrain have a global perspective on events and are actively looking at opportunities in the UK.

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