Consultants' mood is optimistic, but not as positive as it was last year, by Richard Garlick

Twenty years ago, when we published the first edition of the Planning Consultancy Survey, the firm that topped the leading employers' table was Grimley, with a staff of 40 chartered town planners.

This year, there are 13 firms which report that they employ this number of planners or more. That stat-istic in itself tells you how significantly the consultancy sector has grown in the past two decades. In 2016, the biggest employer, Savills, had 167 planners on its staff. More than 1000 planning professionals now work for the ten biggest consulting firms.

Bryan Johnston, who has either managed or advised on every edition of the survey, looks back on the past 20 years. He reminds us that some of today's biggest players - such as Barton Willmore, Turley and Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners - have built their current teams through organic growth. Others, including Savills, Capita, WYG and RPS Group, have used acquisitions to expand rapidly.

Many familiar names have disappeared due to takeovers and mergers since 1997, but administration and insolvencies have proven to be relatively rare.

This year's data reveals that most consultants have had a good year. About two-thirds of the biggest 50 firms reported a rise in the number of planners that they employ in the past twelve months. A slightly bigger proportion of those who provided earnings figures for the past two years reported an increase in fee income.

Total planning earnings for the 49 of the top 56 fee earners that reported data in both years rose from £464 million to £498 million, with housing and transport the fastest growing sectors for planning consultancy work. Maximum fee rates continue to increase, with 90 per cent of firms now saying that they charge a maximum above £800 a day and 52 per cent above £1,200, compared with 69 per cent and 29 per cent respectively last year.

However, growth is not universal. Three of the biggest employers - RPS Group, Barton Willmore and Peter Brett Associates - reduced their planner numbers by more than ten last year. RPS Group points to a trend among clients to employ more in-house planners as part of its explanation for the change. Barton Willmore cites a slight decline in market buoyancy as a reason, although it adds that it intends to grow its team again in 2017.

This optimism is widely shared and, despite concern about the impact of Brexit on the development market, almost two-thirds of consultants expect to grow staff numbers next year. The positive outlook is even more marked among the biggest firms, with all but one of the top 20 employers predicting an increase in their headcount in 2017. Rapid growth is predicted in the markets for planning advice on housing, commercial and industrial development and local-plan making.

But although the mood among consultants clearly remains buoyant, it should be noted that optimism is less universal than it was last year, when three-quarters of firms predicted staff growth.

The survey can be read in full here.

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