Consultants hit note of cautious confidence

After a year in which we have seen one top ten planning consultancy go into administration, and another lose 20 chartered professionals, it may seem perverse to talk about confidence in the advisory sector.

Yet a sense of cautious optimism is evident in the results of our latest Planning Consultancy Survey.

The 2011/12 financial year does not seem to have been quite as hard on consultancies as some expected. Five of last year's top ten firms may now employ fewer chartered town planners, but five have taken on more. On average, firms that disclosed fee income both this year and last year have seen a five per cent rise in fee income. Fourteen of the 20 highest-earning firms recorded a rise in income, a figure that looks more impressive in the context of the previous year, when half reported a decline.

On the whole, the advisory firms seem equally sanguine looking forward. Around two-thirds of firms who made predictions for their fee income for 2012/13 forecast a rise of five per cent or more. Sectors expected to generate the biggest increases in work are residential development (eight per cent), mixed-use development (seven to eight per cent), energy planning (ten per cent) and district and neighbourhood level planning (nine to eleven per cent). Almost half (48 per cent) expect their planning teams to grow, compared with 42 per cent last year, and the three per cent who expect shrinkage.

Of course, positive prospects for consultancies do not necessarily mean that everything is rosy in the planning sector. They are partly a reflection of growing optimism about the climate for development, which is a trend that almost everyone in the sector will welcome. The proportion of respondents who believe that the economic climate for development will improve over the next 12 months has doubled to 46 per cent since our last survey appeared at the end of 2011.

But the advisory firms' optimism is also partly down to a realisation that the system is still in flux. "Planning reform is good for business," one consultant told us, pointing out that his firm and other firms earn their keep by helping clients to manage change.

Some of the changes that they expect to be navigating are revealed by the survey, which shows that more than half of respondents think anti-development councils will use the Community Infrastructure Levy to block housebuilding, and 45 per cent think that neighbourhood planning is helping residents to resist unwelcome development.

More of a concern to the wider planning sector will be the fact that some consultants' optimism about next year is based on a belief that their clients are showing an increased appetite for appeals. Almost three-quarters of respondents to this year's survey said that the planning reforms will lead to more appeals over the next two years.

One consultant commented that clients were now more likely to put their resources into appeals than into shaping the evolution of development plans. That sentiment, if widely shared among clients, may help consultancy fee income in the short term, but would not be good for the plan-led system in the long term.

The Planning Consultancy Survey can be read in full here.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning

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