The Planning Law Survey 2018: The top law firms and solicitors

Our in-depth report shows the law firms and solicitors ranked highest by the consultants, developers and officers that use their services, as well as staffing changes within the biggest planning teams. Adam Branson reports.

Pinsent Masons: the team has held on as highest-rated planning law firm and company with the most planning solicitors
Pinsent Masons: the team has held on as highest-rated planning law firm and company with the most planning solicitors

It has been a stable year in the pecking order of the UK’s top planning law firms. All of the five highest rated firms in last year’s survey retain that status, although Eversheds Sutherland and Town Legal have swapped places. Clarke Willmott, Walker Morris and Shoosmiths have secured places in this year’s top nine, while three of last year’s top ten – Bircham Dyson Bell, DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells – appear in joint tenth place alongside two high climbers, Herbert Smith Freehills and Bristol-based TLT Solicitors.

Still at number one by some distance is Pinsent Masons, which tops the table of highest rated firms (see table, below) for the fifth year running. One consultant describes the firm’s offer as a "premier league planning practice characterised by a strong team led by outstanding individuals", with an "intimate knowledge" of the infrastructure sector. The firm has two partners in this year’s group of the five highest rated individual solicitors (see panel, p17), with Iain Gilbey and Richard Ford in joint fourth place. Pinsent Masons also has the largest planning team for the third year in a row. The firm lists 18 full-time partners in its planning, zoning and consents team, three other partners spending at least half their time on infrastructure consents, and seven legal directors and two senior consultants regarded as "partner equivalents" who lead planning projects and client relationships.

To view an expanded and enlarged version of the table below, click here. 

Among its key projects, Pinsent Masons is currently advising joint venture partners Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy on the Cleve Hill Solar Park proposal in Kent, which could become the first solar project to go through the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) process. It is also acting for energy firm Drax on its plans to re-vamp the Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire, including installation of a 200MW battery storage facility, and is providing planning ad-vice on the expansion of Heathrow Airport. The firm is further acting for developer Delancey on its revelopment of both the Elephant and Castle shopping centre and the London College of Communication in south London and for the HIMOR Group on the regeneration of the former Shell refinery in Car-rington, Greater Manchester.

Up from third last year to second in the ratings is Town Legal, the specialist planning firm set up in 2016. The practice is described by one consultant as "very experienced and pragmatic", while another says the team is "knowledgeable, competent, pragmatic and pleasant". Founding partners Simon Ricketts and Claire Fielding remain in the top ten of the individual solicitors table. In terms of staffing, Town Legal has added three more planning solicitors in the past year, hiring associates Juliet Munn, Susie Herbert and Amy Bennett. Town Legal’s casework includes acting on all planning law matters for developer Eco-Bos on its proposed Carclaze ecotown in Cornwall and for the Battersea Power Station Development Company.

Eversheds Sutherland is down from second to third in this year’s rankings. "Because of their strength, depth and breadth of capability they can be relied upon to provide a first-rate service, whatever the type of development or matter in hand," says one consultant. The firm has the second biggest planning law team in the survey with 41 specialist solicitors, one down from last year. According to partner Stuart Andrews, the planning team has seen two departures in the last year, one each in its Leeds and Cardiff offices. Andrews is acting for the South West Milton Keynes Consortium of five developers and housebuilders on a proposed new neighbourhood of up to 1,850 homes and advising joint venture Henley Camland on delivering the new garden city at Ebbsfleet, Kent. Partner Michelle Moss is advising High Speed Two Ltd on implementation of compulsory acquisition powers and on compensation and blight matters.

Following hard on Eversheds Sutherlands’ heels is Dentons. The firm is described by one consultancy chief as having "undoubtedly one of the longest and most impressive track records in planning". He adds: "Dentons has excellent advisers – they cover all the ground very well, from high-level strategy to the nuts and bolts." Dentons has grown by four planning solicitors overall in the last 12 months. The line-up includes three additional planning lawyers based in Edinburgh following the firm’s merger with Scottish legal outfit Maclay, Murray & Spens last October. In addition to Dentons partner Stephen Ashworth’s cases, the firm’s current work includes acting for Land Improvement Holdings on strate-gic land promotions, local plan preparation and the submission of applications in various parts of the country. It is advising Taylor Wimpey on the Mount Pleasant housing scheme in north London.

To view an expanded and enlarged version of the table below, click here. 

In fifth position is Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), which next month is due to be restyled Berwin Leighton Bryan Cave following an impending merger with a US-based law firm. According to one planning consultant: "BLP have a strong all-round team that provides clear and consistent advice in relation to projects of all sizes, especially major infrastructure projects. We find them extremely approachable and their strong relationships with the bar ensures the highest quality support, whether advising on strategic issues, at appeal or in the High Court." BLP has the sixth largest planning team in the survey, with its complement of planning solicitors unchanged since last year at 27. Alongside Pinsent Masons, the firm is providing planning advice on the expansion of Heathrow Airport. It is also advising energy firm National Grid on its development consent order (DCO) application for an overhead line connection to the proposed new nuclear power station at Wylfa on Anglesey and developers Westfield and Hammerson on their joint venture plans for a new shopping centre in Croydon.

Among the high climbers in the top ten is Clarke Willmott, who move up five places to sixth. "I’ve always found they provide consistently sound and constructive legal advice across a wide range of development matters," says one senior consultant. Another adds: "We have worked with Clarke Willmott on a number of residential schemes and they have always offered clear and robust advice that has enabled our clients to move forward with surety." Clarke Willmott has increased its planning solicitor headcount by three, now standing at 11.

Further down the list, CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang, Gowling WLG and Winckworth Sherwood have all improved their ratings this year and there are three new entries in joint 20th position. Following its merger last spring with Nabarro – rated equal eighth best planning law firm in the 2017 survey - and Olswang, CMS now has the fifth largest team in the sector with 28 qualified solicitors, although that is seven fewer than its predecessors’ joint total last year. Head of planning Ashley Damiral says the firm has "a number of joint planning and environment, land remediation and land assembly specialists". He adds: "This year, we included very few from this cohort, as their emphasis has been more on the environment and property side and they haven’t quite reached the required 50 per cent of their time to be counted as planning specialists in the survey."

Click here to enlarge the table below. 

One planning law team to register significant growth in the past year is Squire Patton Boggs (SPB). In this year’s survey, the firm has included around two dozen infrastructure specialists on top of the nine planning lawyers noted last year. According to head of planning Richard Glover, the firm has "invested significantly" over the past 12 months in its energy and infrastructure team, which "deals exclusively with infrastructure projects", and more appointments are being made. Glover says the firm’s headcount also includes its environmental team, which deals with land remediation projects.

Bircham Dyson Bell remains the fourth biggest planning team in the survey. Its work in the past year includes a prospective DCO to reopen Manston Airport in Kent for cargo, as well as other planned DCOs for Luton Airport and the proposed Lower Thames Crossing. Also worth noting is the creation last June of Womble Bond Dickinson, following the merger of Bond Dickinson with US law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. The new firm’s planning team is the eighth biggest in our survey with 22 planning solicitors, the same number as Bond Dickinson was fielding in 2017.

In the individual solicitors section, Town Legal’s Ricketts is way out in front, topping the table for the ninth consecutive year (see table, below). This year saw three new entries in the top five, with Clarke Willmott partner Neil Baker rising from joint 15th in 2017 to joint second. Sharing second place with Baker is Dentons partner Stephen Ashworth, who climbs from eighth place last year. The third new entry is Pinsent Masons partner Richard Ford, up from seventh, who is tied in fourth place with fellow partner Iain Gilbey, who came second last year.

Outside the top five, there have been big rises in nominations since last year for Eversheds Sutherland partner Richard Lloyd and Walker Morris partner Richard Sagar, who both break into the top ten. Lloyd is up from joint 15th to sixth, while Sagar rises to joint seventh from joint 17th. Other notable climbers are the heads of planning at TLT and Herbert Smith Freehills, Katherine Evans and Matthew White respectively, who move from joint 25th to joint 11th. Clarke Willmott partner Caroline Waller is the highest new entry in the table, at joint 15th.

In the council legal team rankings (see table, above), Westminster City Council remains comfortably in top spot while the City of London Corporation retains second place. City of London comptroller Deborah Cluett retains the top individual slot, followed by Royal Borough of Greenwich principal lawyer Eleanor Penn, who was joint first in 2017.

The solicitors’ survey results were based on 179 responses from 131 different organisations, which comprised 67 planning consultancies, 36 councils, 25 developers and three government agencies. All responses were checked to make sure they came from eligible groups.

Top Five Planning Solicitors 2017

1 Simon Ricketts, Town Legal
"Simon is always fair and balanced," says one senior consultant. "He is always on top of his subject and understands the cross-relationships with the numerous planning pressures and risks in any project. He reasonably and pragmatically limits client costs rather than requiring full investigation of every last issue." In a similar vein, a developer adds: "Simon Ricketts always provides clear, calm and considered advice." As part of Town Legal’s caseload, Ricketts is advising Imperial College on its Perfume Factory student housing and build-to-rent development in Acton, west London, and acted for Richborough Estates in its successful Supreme Court battle against Cheshire East Borough Council.

2= Stephen Ashworth, Dentons
"Stephen is very passionate about his work and gives direct advice that you can rely on without question," says one council planning chief. "He is one of the most reliable and talented solicitors I have come across in the last 35 years." Ashworth is currently advising Colchester, Brain-tree and Tendring Councils on the North Essex Garden Communities initiative, which proposes three new towns totalling 45,000 homes, and the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham on compulsory purchase orders to support the regeneration of Barking town centre.

2= Neil Baker, Clarke Willmott
"Neil has an excellent grasp of the technical detail of planning law and provides an excellent service to his clients and fellow professionals," says one planning consultant. Another adds: "Neil’s commercial, client-friendly and astute outlook means he is always a pleasure to work alongside." Baker’s key casework includes advising Acorn Property Group on outline plans for up to 1,600 homes and 2,600 square metres of employment space at Brook Green in Braintree, Essex, which has now gone to appeal. He has also acted for housebuilder Persimmon Homes to secure permission for 520 new homes at Picket Twenty in Andover, Hampshire.

4= Richard Ford, Pinsent Masons
"I dealt with him when he was acting for a local planning authority and I was in the promoter team," recalls one consultant. "He was a formidable opponent who impressed with his mastery of the details and the assertive way in which he advanced his client’s cause." On the public sector side, one former head of planning adds: "Richard’s encyclopaedic knowledge, unrivalled experience and attention to detail make him a wonderful person to have on your team." Key work includes advising Glasgow Prestwick Airport on its Spaceport project and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bid Company on how it should plan for the delivery of games venues.

4= Iain Gilbey, Pinsent Masons
"Iain always acts quickly and decisively to address his clients’ needs," says one consultant. "This, combined with his vast experience, makes him a very effective operator who delivers successful outcomes. He exudes calm authority when the stakes are high and timescales are short." Another adds: "Iain has the ability to see through the complexities of the most challenging planning situations." Gilbey is instructed by Lendlease to provide ongoing planning advice on the Elephant Park regeneration project in south London. He is also advising developer CGI Limited on its plans for 560 homes at the historic Drop Redoubt fort, which is partly in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

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