Planning consultants are in a buoyant mood. Phrases such as "sustained growth in the market", "very positive" and "significant step-up in the market" pepper interviews with senior industry figures and mark a retreat from negative sentiments of recent years.
The main sector cheering consultants is residential. The overall planning consultancy market value of residential development from the 81 firms who provided breakdowns of fee income has increased to £54 million in the year to 31 March 2013, up from £46 million the previous year. So confident are planning consultants that they are predicting an average growth of 17 per cent for planning work in the residential sector in the year to March 2014. Reported growth in this sector over the past year has been 15 per cent - double the expectations expressed in last year's survey.
All consultants interviewed by Planning reported a surge in activity in residential development. "It's a mix of factors: increased demand for housing, better economic conditions and availability of finance," says James Fennell, managing director at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners.
David Bainbridge, partner at Bidwells, reports that residential or residential-led mixed-use schemes were the strongest areas of performance for the firm. "The demand for housing has to be met largely by greenfield sites coming forward for development," he says.
David Lock Associates is also very busy, says managing director Lawrence Revill, especially in its specialist area of large-scale masterplanning and regeneration and urban extensions. "I don't think we've ever made as many big applications as we have this year," he says.
Most commentators point to the South and South East as the busiest locations for residential development, though high-value areas such as Cheshire and parts of the South West are also providing lots of activity.
Improvements in the economy and government schemes such as Help to Buy are behind a lot of the improvement, consultants believe. Roger Hepher, head of planning at Savills, cites the return of entrepreneurs who specialise in bringing forward smaller or more complex sites as a catalyst. "They are quite important in lubricating the system," he says.
But all point to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), now 18 months into implementation, as having had a major effect on the increase in residential planning applications. Simon Neate, chairman of Indigo Planning, believes that the NPPF has made the policy framework for housing much clearer. "Local authorities know they have to get their act together on housing," he says. "Some are still a bit resistant, but they don't have as many options to kick schemes into the long grass. They're likely to get appeal decisions against them."
Bainbridge says: "The NPPF has been positive, particularly the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the need for a five-year supply of housing."
Jane Hirst, managing director of Boyer Planning, reports that the firm has been significantly busier this year, citing the NPPF as a key reason. "We are managing many residential projects, both bringing forward planning applications and development plan work, with the emphasis moving towards the former as five-year supply requirements in the NPPF allow an effective means of bypassing the development plan process."
Indeed, consultants are positive about the impact of the NPPF across the spectrum of planning work, with 70 per cent believing that the policy makes it easier to secure permission for schemes that lack support from the local planning authority.
Hepher also believes that the NPPF has encouraged councils to take a more positive approach. "You don't change perceptions overnight, but it has had some effect in changing planning authorities' behaviour as they are more inclined to recognise the importance of a development's economic benefits." This is helped by the fact that the Planning Inspectorate has clearly supported the NPPF in decisions, he adds.
Another sector seeing plenty of growth is energy, where the planning consultancy market value, according to the 81 firms providing data, rose from £29 million last year to £31 million in this year's survey. The mood remains positive, with the average prediction for growth in the year to March 2014 offered by consultants being 18 per cent. Hepher says: "I think the energy industry is active generally, in part because energy companies know that we need to build infrastructure so we don't have an energy deficit."
Savills' energy planning team wins a lot of work through the firm's related energy activities, Hepher believes. It manages large amounts of rural land for landowners and buys and sells energy assets on their behalf.
There is also an increasingly broad range of energy projects for consultants to get their teeth into. David Sandbrook, head of planning at SLR Consulting, reports that solar projects and work on the exploration of shale gas resources are adding to its work on wind schemes.
However, some areas of activity are still flat. The market value of planning consultancy in retail and town centres has grown only slightly from £36 million in last year's survey to £37 million this year.
Work here has focused on change of use rather than building new space, say both Hepher and Neate. Retailers have sought to extend the range of products they sell. "Often they have conditions that don't allow that, but local authorities can be pragmatic in the interest of creating jobs," Hepher says.
NLP's Fennell has experienced a rise in restaurant-related work, much of it from shopping-centre owners wanting to give people a reason to visit in the face of the rise of internet shopping. "It's a defensive driver," he says.
Changing social trends in shopping have increased work in other areas. Savills has been busy with warehousing and distribution work to service internet shopping and home deliveries, according to Hepher.
Consultants are confident that the market will continue in a positive vein. The proportion of survey respondents who believe the economic climate for development will improve over the next 12 months has risen from less than a quarter in our survey in 2011 to 46 per cent in 2012 and 89 per cent in 2013.
Only nine per cent of 168 responses expressed uncertainty over prospects for the year ahead. The proportion of sceptics shrank from 31 per cent in 2011 to 16 per cent last year and just two per cent this year.
Indigo's Neate sums up the prevailing mood: "We're all enjoying a sense of coming out of the woods."
ABOUT THE SURVEY
The Planning Consultancy Survey 2013 was conducted during September by Planning's sister company DCS. Consultants were invited to respond via an online survey or by returning a paper questionnaire. Questions covered staffing and fee levels, estimates of growth or decline in key market sectors and views on a set of current practice issues. The survey received responses from a record 276 practices, 66 more than last year, employing 2,134 chartered town planners.
Read the rest of the survey below
Consultancies are increasingly keen to boost their numbers of planning staff, but competition for talent is high. Susie Sell reports.
Fee income has risen as firms have explored new avenues, says Susie Sell.