The Planning Consultancy Survey 2017: Market Sector Commentary

Leading consultants reflect on which sectors have shown growth and decline in this year's consultancy survey. Adam Branson reports.

Brownfield housing saw significant increases in trading volumes in 2016/17
Brownfield housing saw significant increases in trading volumes in 2016/17

Planning consultancy advice on greenfield and brownfield housing saw significant increases in trading volumes in 2016/17, according to this year’s survey. The two sectors grew by nine per cent and seven per cent respectively in the past year, respondents reported. On the flipside, retail dipped by one per cent and the energy and wider infrastructure sector saw anaemic growth. So, what do the leading firms make of the figures?

Many of the big firms report housing to have been a major growth market. What’s more, given the government’s renewed enthusiasm for the sector, they don’t see that going away any time soon. "Housing has been a strongly performing sector for us throughout the year," says Savills head of planning David Jackson. "In part, this is because of the state of the market, but it’s also due to an increase in local plan activity, which is bringing forward sites."

James Fennell, chief executive at Lichfields, agrees. "Prospects for planning work in housing work remain strong," he says. "This is underpinned by a fundamental shortage of homes and planning consultants having to make sense of one government policy response after another in an attempt to deal with the problem."                                                                                                  

The situation on the retail front, however, is decidedly more mixed, following years of slow growth. In the 2016 and 2015 surveys, consultants reported growth of just one per cent, even before this year’s slight absolute decline. However, some see the green shoots of recovery. According to Gerald Sweeney, a director at WYG: "We aren’t anywhere near a position in which retail is a dominant land use or regeneration driver."

However, Sweeney says that budget food supermarkets are coming back to seek greater market share: "On early indications, they appear to be able to offer land values that make them interesting to developers as part of mixed-use schemes". He adds: "We are also seeing a greater number of larger-scale residential-led schemes that, in order to meet the National Planning Policy Framework sustainability balance, are seeking to include retail in combination with other land uses. This wasn’t the case a couple of years ago."

Looking ahead, consultancies predict that demand for advice on residential planning will continue to show strong growth. Once again, greenfield and brownfield housing advice is tipped as the top-performing sectors, according to respondents’ forecasts of growth in the year to March 2018, although commercial and leisure developments are not far behind.

David Cowan, managing director of planning and environment at RPS, says: "We expect to see further growth next year in the residential sector as housebuilders respond to forthcoming changes in how the planning system identifies brownfield and greenfield sites primarily for housing and mixed-use development and how it calculates the requirement for housing overall."

Outside the development sectors, consultancy advice on district-wide plans is tipped as the third highest growth sector, with seven per cent expansion expected. Philip Smith, director of planning at LUC, reports that his firm has received a "considerable amount" of strategic planning work from local authorities, "particularly on spatial options assessments for housing growth and green belt studies".

Despite the slow reported growth of just one per cent for energy advice in 2016/17, consultants are more optimistic about its prospects in 2017/18, estimating three per cent growth. According to Sweeney, "energy is seen as having significant potential for growth" going forward.

Despite challenges resulting from the "drop off in activity in renewable energy", Jackson predicts that the energy sector "has more than bounced back in terms of diversifying into other forms of generation, including nuclear and gas". He adds: "We see the infrastructure sector continuing to make further headway, with continued investment in energy and in road and rail transport." 

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