Leading planning consultancies readily admit that the past 12 months have seen a challenging market, but many see light at the end of the tunnel.
This year, 48 per cent of the 173 firms answering the question said that they expected their planning teams to grow in the year ahead, against 42 per cent last year. Conversely, only five firms thought that their planning teams would be likely to shrink over the same period.
While four of the ten biggest employers have seen the number of chartered town planners on their books drop over the past 12 months, five have seen figures increase. By this September, Barton Willmore was fielding 146 chartered town planners - the highest total for any consultancy ever recorded in this survey, topping RPS Group's complement of 141 in 2008.
Barton Willmore senior partner Ian Tant reports that confidence about masterplanning for major projects, including new settlements and garden suburbs, is returning. "Clients are showing more desire to progress planning applications and appeal if necessary," he says. "The government is demonstrating a genuine enthusiasm for growth and a determination to get the economy moving by supporting and sustaining the development industry."
Leading employers of chartered town planners 2012 (PDF)
Growth of leading employers of chartered town planners (PDF)
Main UK planning teams by region and nations (PDF)
These are encouraging signals, but the economic problems of the past four years still cast a shadow. "There are still constraints on lending for developers," says Mark Connell, planning and development director at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). "This has limited projects' long-term viability, which holds back planning for future recruitment. Despite this, there is evidence that confidence is returning."
James Fennell, managing director at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners (NLP), agrees that the availability of finance for developers is the main challenge. "But we are seeing increased activity in the housing, infrastructure and health sectors," he says. "On retail, the large pre-recession town centre schemes are being reworked and made smaller and simpler."
David Lock Associates (DLA) managing director Lawrence Revill points to three key factors in planner recruitment. "The first is the increasing complexity of the planning system, which simply requires more resources," he says. "The second is a need to get the right balance between junior and senior staff across the company, which creates opportunities for new graduates. Third, we are broadening our skills base in viability assessment, highway design and environmental impact assessment."
At Savills, where the number of Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) qualified planners has remained broadly stable since 2011, head of planning and regeneration Roger Hepher says the employment market has become a bit more active over the past year. "We have both lost and gained people as a consequence," he says. "We've been able to secure some talented people who have brought new ideas and enthusiasm." He also points to changes in the balance of work types, saying that an increasing amount of time has gone into specialisms such as strategic housing land, major sports venues and retail.
Some firms report problems in hiring experienced planners. "High-quality CVs are hard to come by, which makes recruitment tortuous," says Tant. "Lots of good people who have weathered recent challenging times are bound by loyalty to their employers or are not yet confident enough in the stability of growth to move on. Our strategy is one of continual improvement, so we are making key appointments, even if it's taking longer than it did before the downturn."
Hepher says: "Recruiting top-quality senior people with an established client following is a challenge, as they are generally being looked after well by their current employers. Those who are footloose are sometimes tempted to have a go at setting up on their own. One feature of the current market is an increased number of start-ups from sole traders or small numbers of people working together."
Revill acknowledges that it is "surprisingly difficult to find good senior people". At the junior end of the spectrum, he adds, DLA's graduate recruitment programme has brought in four new members of staff this year.
Geoff Thorpe, planning and development recruitment director at RPS Group, notes: "There is a healthy supply in the graduate and junior market, but recruits are more difficult to find at principal level and above. The most difficult to find are those with three to five years' commercial experience, due to the lower levels of graduates entering the consultancy sector since 2008."
Most consultancies report increasing opportunities for those entering the profession, with students taking on a greater workload. This year's survey records 266 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) student or licentiate members across 86 consultancies, compared with 243 in 2011. Women accounted for 51 per cent of students and licentiates this year, against 45 per cent in 2011.
NLP has taken on nine graduates this year, bringing its total for RTPI students and licentiates to 30. Fennell expects to recruit more in the near future. "We have invested at this level over the past few years so that we don't find ourselves with staff and skills shortages in five years' time," he explains. Indigo Planning has hired five graduates this year. "They are an important part of the team. They represent the future of the business," says managing director Philip Villars.
"It's important to have a youthful presence," says Tant. "We encourage work experience, internships and short-term contracts with a view to offering permanent positions as the work demands - which we've been able to do in a number of cases this year. However, we have to be careful about the numbers at any one time. If we're to give the experience and care that those entering the professions deserve, we have to be able to pay them individual attention."
Consultants report some skill sets are in short supply. At JLL, Connell points to shortages in retail planning and development appraisal skills. Several consultants cite masterplanning as the most common shortcoming. Tant sees an integrated approach to planning and design as crucial. "Planners who have empathy with designers and vice versa are like gold dust. Many planners have a love of the built environment, but are often missing an entrepreneurial mindset," he says.
The concentration of consultants varies across the regions and nations. London is the base for 28.5 per cent of the 2,091 chartered planners counted in the survey, while the South East and East of England account for another 20 per cent. Twelve per cent operate from the South West, ten per cent from the North West, eight per cent from the West Midlands, five per cent from Yorkshire and Humberside and three per cent apiece in the East Midlands and North East. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland collectively account for the remainder: about an eighth of the total.
The survey shows that 26 consultancies have regional networks of four or more offices with chartered planners in-house. Despite closing small teams in Exeter and Nottingham this year, Savills still has the longest address list, with planners operating from 13 locations. URS Infrastructure & Environment UK has planners in 12 locations across every English region, Scotland and Northern Ireland, followed by RPS Group and WYG Planning & Environment with 11 and Barton Willmore and Turley Associates with ten. Capita Symonds also has ten sites, including in-house local authority teams at Salford, Breckland and North Tyneside.
Consultancies agree that London and the South East are still the UK's strongest markets. In Scotland, Connell says continuing growth at JLL's Edinburgh team is being fuelled by the renewable energy sector's buoyant performance. Villars says Indigo Planning is set to open more offices. Tant says Barton Willmore is seeing growth in several city-regions - particularly Manchester, where it opened an office last year.
RPS Group planning director Chris Simkins also cites Birmingham and Bristol as active markets. "Cambridge and the surrounding area is still a phenomenon in itself," he says. "And the emergence of the National Planning Policy Framework has increased confidence throughout England, particularly on residential development."