More work all round

Consultancies are increasingly keen to boost their numbers of planning staff, but competition for talent is high. Susie Sell reports.

Following several years of caution about the economic recovery, the pressure on planning consultancy teams seems to be receding, with most of the top firms having increased their contingent of planners over the past 12 months.

Indeed, of the top 20 planning consultancies ranked by numbers of chartered town planners, 12 increased their numbers of RTPI-qualified planners in the year up to 1 September 2013. Six reduced numbers of chartered planners, while two have kept numbers stable. Turley Associates has seen the biggest increase, with 23 additional chartered town planners, while Barton Willmore has added 20, URS 16 and CGMS 11. Numbers of student and licenciate members of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) among the top 20 firms are also up, at 159 this year compared to 128 last year.

Barton Willmore has topped our survey staffing rankings again (see table, right). Last year, it was fielding the highest number of chartered town planners ever recorded in this survey at 146, but this year the team has expanded further to 166.

Ian Tant, senior partner at Barton Willmore, says that growing activity across the sector has driven the increase.

Although London has remained particularly resilient during the downturn, he says workload is growing across the country.

He says the firm's northern offices have also taken on extra staff and highlights the company's decision to open a new office in Newcastle in May.

Workload has been particularly spurred by activity in the housing and retail sectors, Tant says. But the firm has also seen a significant increase in its research workload, as it aims to build the evidence base that is needed to support planning applications. "The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requires objective assessment of needs for all forms of development," he says.

URS has also seen a significant increase in its planning team, from 59 in 2012 to 75 this year.

Martin Herbert, technical director and head of planning at URS, says that viability assessment work is plentiful, as there is an increased focus on demonstrating the economic feasibility of planning proposals following the government's guidance in the NPPF.

But recent wins, such as the Bank tube station capacity upgrade, as well as ongoing work on huge infrastructure projects in the capital - including north-south train link Crossrail and the 25km east-west Thames Tideway sewer tunnel - have also driven its staffing boost, he says.

Herbert points to recruitment of two planners to its team in Edinburgh, driven by residential work, as well as seven new planners in London. In anticipation of further intensification of its workload on major infrastructure projects, URS is expecting to further increase its number of chartered town planners in the coming months.

Neighbourhood planning is another important area for the firm. It expects to recruit as a result of winning a government neighbourhood planning contract last month. It will be working with community group umbrella body Locality, which provides support and grants on behalf of the government for groups undertaking neighbourhood planning, and the Royal Town Planning Institute, Herbert adds.

Meanwhile, at CGMS, numbers of chartered town planners have risen from 39 to 50 in the year to 1 September, but it looks likely that the consultancy will expand further in the coming months, according to John Stockdale, finance director of the planning team at the firm. "We seem to be under constant pressure in terms of reaching capacity on a weekly basis," he says.

"We are beginning to think we are going to have to go out (and recruit) again, probably before we get to the end of the year," he adds. "But we are trying to hold off on that if we can until everybody is bedded in."

And although the firm remains cautious about opening further offices, it has expanded in its London office, which it moved into about 18 months ago. "We are now probably getting towards the maximum that we can hold here. But if we were to expand anywhere it would be here," Stockdale says.

Turley Associates is also expecting to recruit further on the back of significant increases in staff numbers in recent months, which were spurred by growth in the consultancy's teams covering heritage, sustainability, economic planning and local engagement. The number of chartered town planners the firm employs rose from 97 in 2012 to 120 in 2013.

Rob Lucas, the firm's chief executive, says the economic recovery is providing a sizeable boost to the residential sector, and the firm is also gaining from growth in the energy sector, covering wind farms, biomass and energy infrastructure.

Its most significant growth was in Manchester, where it grew from six to 20 planners, and Bristol, where it grew from four to 14.

Several firms have expanded teams around the country. Capita, which runs outsourcing services on behalf of local authorities, has increased the number of planners based in London after it won a contract to run development management and strategic planning services for the London Borough of Barnet in August. But it has cut numbers in Salford and East Dereham

Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners (NLP) expanded its team in Leeds to exploit growth in its work in the region. The Leeds office was opened in 2012 with three staff, but in 2013 the team grew to six, including four chartered planners, and moved to bigger premises.

SLR Consulting, meanwhile, opened an office in London with one planner. David Sandbrook, head of planning at SLR, explains that it has traditionally been focused on the mineral and waste sector, which the firm felt it could service from its regional offices. However, it has expanded its breadth of work in response to the recession and now does far more general planning work, especially in housing, large infrastructure projects and environmental impact assessment, for which it felt it needed an office in the capital.

Sandbrook says the consultancy wants to further grow its housing work and plans further recruitment in this office.

Alliance Environment and Planning has added five chartered planners in the past year. The firm's director Debbie Fidgett cites increasing work across all sectors, including residential work, brownfield development, quarrying and increasingly solar farms.

The firm has offices in Birmingham, London and Guildford and this year, it opened an office in Milton Keynes with two planners at director level. This was to extend its geographical cover to cover the East of England region. The company is planning to recruit further in all offices, says Fidgett.

Carter Jonas's stock of planners rose by seven in the past year. Nick Taylor, head of planning and development at the firm, says that its London office, which opened at the end of 2011, is growing its numbers the fastest and now has six chartered town planners, including two masterplanners. One of the main drivers is its status as a preferred supplier on the Government Procurement Service list, which it was appointed to in April. This has resulted in planning work for local authorities and public sector bodies looking to redevelop their estates, he says.

Many consultants are planning further recruitment over the coming year. Of 171 firms that responded to questions about the future size of their planning teams, 49 per cent said they expected to see staff numbers grow over the next 12 months, compared to 48 per cent last year. And just 2.5 per cent of these firms said their planning teams are likely to contract in the months ahead.

However, the search for talent is not easy, as consultants report the return to a competitive recruitment market. Lucas at Turley Associates says: "Junior-level staff are easier (to find), but senior, experienced business leads and expert consultants are really quite difficult."

Tant at Barton Willmore agrees it can be difficult to find the right people. The recession has reduced the number of new planners coming through, he says.

But over the past 12 months there has been an increased willingness among private sector planners to switch firms, he notes. "The fear behind moving has subsided, and we are finding good people out there, both those who are recently qualified and those with experience."

However, not all firms have been boosting staff numbers, with Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, RPS Group, Capita, WYG, Deloitte and David Lock Associates all reducing their number of chartered planners over the past year, according to the survey.

David Lowin, WYG's head of planning, says its decline in numbers stemmed from not replacing staff who left or retired, a strategy it used because of uncertainty about the pace of economic recovery. "You don't want resources sitting idle," he says. "So when people decided that they were leaving we had a good look at our supply of work and thought: 'Well, can we manage without them? Largely through this year we have been able to do that."

But Lowin says the uncertainty that prevailed has now subsided, and the firm is expecting its number of planners to rise over the next 12 months.

Its acquisition of Higham & Co in Manchester in early October points to a renewed confidence. "At all times, particularly when you are coming out a recession or you think you might be, there comes a tipping point when you think: 'Right, now we are going to take positive action'," he adds. "And I think that happened somewhere during this past year."

A table showing the leading employers of chartered town planners can be downloaded here.

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