It's a good time to be a planning consultant

For the most part, it seems to be a good time to be a planning consultant. According to this year's Planning Consultancy Survey, optimism is widespread, if not universal.

Of the 20 biggest consultancy employers of chartered planners that responded to the survey, 12 increased their number of qualified town planners in the year to March 31 2013, compared to six who cut numbers. Last year, firms were evenly split between those who were expanding and those who were contracting.

Roughly half of all respondents agree that their team will grow over the next 12 months, compared to around a quarter that disagree. Around three-quarters predict a rise in fee income next year, and nearly nine out of ten think the economic climate for development will improve over the next 12 months.

Some of the biggest firms are growing very fast. Fee income among the top ten earners has grown to £283 million in the year to March 31 2013, compared to £243 million two years ago. Four firms added more than ten chartered planners to their staff last year.

A number of factors have played a part in this growth in the consultancy market. Demand for advice in both the energy and transport sectors has risen fast. But the most widely cited source of growth has been the residential market. In last year's survey, consultants' predictions were that residential earnings would grow by eight per cent in the year to 31 March 2013. But according to the 81 firms that provided detailed breakdowns of their fee income for last year, income from residential work rose 15 per cent last year, and will rise by another 17 per cent next year.

The firms attribute this increase to several factors, including general economic improvement, the effect of the government's mortgage assistance programmes and, most of all, the impact of the National Planning Policy Framework. Consultants say that the framework, by making it harder for planning authorities to evade responsibility for meeting local housing need, has hugely boosted their workload.

This is no doubt partly happening because of development opportunities generated by newly published local plans, finally emerging after over-long gestation periods because of the galvanising effect of the NPPF. But it is also happening because, as consultants frankly acknowledge, the framework provides opportunities to bypass development plans. Seven out of ten of respondents said that the framework had made it easier to get permission for schemes that lack planning authority support (we profile the ten biggest such approvals since the NPPF's publication here).

There's further evidence of a resurgent private sector coinciding with a weakening public sector - nine out of ten respondents say that staff shortages at planning authorities are a major constraint on timely decision-making. If the optimism about the development sector that is driving consultancy growth proves well-founded, local authority planning departments will need investment in order to keep up.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning//

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