The Planning Consultancy Survey 2018: the UK's highest earners

Fee income continues to rise at planning consultancies, with advice on greenfield housing and transport planning providing major sources of work, Adam Branson reports.

Planning consultancies have reported another year of steady fee income growth. This year, 91 firms provided annual fee income figures for the Planning Consultancy Survey, with the top 25 featured in the table opposite. A comparison of the 50 highest-earning firms of 2017/18 that provided equivalent data in last year’s survey shows their aggregate fee income rose by nine per cent, from £431.2 to £471.1 million. Of those 50 firms, 37 reported a rise, 11 a fall and two no change. The ten highest earners in 2017/18 who also gave figures last year reported a total planning income of £383.6 million, up about ten per cent on their £347.7 million aggregate takings in 2016/17.

This year, Arup takes top spot, its planning revenue having risen nearly 20 per cent to £110 million last year. The increase follows what UK planning, policy and economics group leader Chris Tunnell calls a "remarkable" growth period over the past five years. He flags up "significant growth" in work on the High Speed Two (HS2) railway "across town planning, economics, environmental and transport planning disciplines". At almost £63 million, against £41 million the year before, transport- related work accounted for 57 per cent of Arup’s planning income in 2017/18. It also has the highest proportion of income in our survey from public sector clients, at 84 per cent.

For the first time since the survey began in 1997, RPS Group no longer tops the fee income table. However, its fee income still rose four per cent year on year to around £97.4 million in 2017/18, despite a substantial fall in chartered town planner numbers. Over the same period, its number of planning fee-earners dropped by only three. According to divisional managing director David Cowan, the continued rise in planning fee income is explained by growth in types of planning activity that can be carried out by non-chartered town planners. He says the company remains particularly busy on residential and infrastructure projects.

At third-placed WYG, planning income also rose marginally, from £48.9 million to £51.1 million, despite the firm seeing a net drop of 24 chartered planners between 2017 and 2018. Director Gerald Sweeney says the seemingly incongruous figures are explained by the fact that "the number of chartered planners in based upon a point in time, whereas the turnover reflects the number of planners that were available to us over the year". The number of fee earners also rose by five.

In fourth place Atkins, which provided no fee income figure in the 2017 survey, reports that its 2017/18 planning fee earnings of £49.5 million are up around eight per cent on the previous year. Planning, economics and heritage manager Joanne Farrar says this is largely down to a "steady stream of work in major infrastructure consenting".

Fifth-placed Savills’ planning fee income in 2017/18 was up by around five per cent on the previous year, against a minor growth in planning fee earners from 227 to 232. In sixth position, Pegasus Group saw its fee income increase by 13 per cent year on year, from £22.5 million to £25.5 million. Managing director Tony Bateman says the firm increased fee rates by about ten per cent in January. "We had kept our rates level for the previous four years but, with inflation, we needed to do something," he says.

Barton Willmore, seventh in the rankings, also saw its planning fee income increase substantially. Although its reported 2017/18 earnings are up 21 per cent on last year’s survey figure, the company says it under-reported some planning-related revenue in that period. According to senior partner Mark Sitch, actual year-on-year growth was around 5.5 per cent. "Brownfield urban regeneration, urban extensions and new settlement proposals make up a good deal of the fee increase, with education facilities also making a growing contribution," Sitch says.

While fee income levels have risen for most firms, the proportion of firms now quoting maximum rates higher than £800 a day has fallen to 76 per cent, from 80 per cent last year and 90 per cent in 2016. Meanwhile, 44 per cent are charging maximum rates of more than £1,200, against 45 per cent in 2017 and 52 per cent in 2016. However, 59 per cent reported that they have raised fees in the past year, up from 53 per cent last year. 

DEFINITIONS Planning fee income figures for 2017/18 relate to the year ending 31 March 2018 except (1) Year ending on or before 31 December 2017 (2) Year ending later than 31 March 2018. (3) ‘Predicted % fee increase 2018/19’ shows consultancies’ estimates of percentage change in their own planning fee income between the years ending 31 March 2018 and 31 March 2019. (4) ‘Predicted rate change 2019 %’ shows consultancies’ anticipated percentage increase in their own daily fee rates between 1 September 2018 and 1 September 2019.

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

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