The Planning Law Survey 2019: The leading law firms and solicitors

There is change at the top of the rankings and elsewhere in this year's survey, reports Mark Wilding.

The Town Legal team: the firm launched slightly more than two years ago, and this year becomes the highest-rated law firm
The Town Legal team: the firm launched slightly more than two years ago, and this year becomes the highest-rated law firm

This is the 22nd edition of the Planning Law Survey. As in recent years, only those working in roles that could involve them in commissioning or instructing a law firm or barrister were eligible to vote. The voting group for the law firm categories was made up of consultants, developers and infrastructure promoters, as well as public sector lawyers and planners. The voting group for barristers comprised the same people, plus solicitors working for law firms.

For the first time this year, only named individuals invited by Planning were eligible to vote. This measure was introduced to ensure that the survey results could not be skewed by disproportionately high levels of responses from single organisations. To the same end, we took steps to ensure that the number of individuals that we invited to vote from individual consultants and law firms was proportionate to the number of planners, or specialist lawyers, at the firms.

A total of 181 respondents completed the survey, split between consultants (71), developers and infrastructure promoters (18), public sector planning officers and lawyers (22) and solicitors (70).

Much has changed in our annual review of the UK’s top-rated planning law firms, with a new practice installed at the top for the first time in six years.

To see an extended version of the table above, please click here. 

Town Legal was this year ranked highest by our voting group. The firm, which launched just over two years ago, came second in last year’s survey. It has swapped places with Pinsent Masons, which had topped the rankings for five years. Eversheds Sutherland is the only constant in the top five, remaining at number three. Clarke Willmott takes fourth after a gradual rise from the middle of the table just three years ago. Fifth place is claimed by Mills & Reeve, a firm which was ranked 25th in 2018.

Town Legal’s rapid rise is no doubt related to the fact that founding partner Simon Ricketts can now report a full decade at the top of the individual solicitor rankings (see panel). The firm reports 14 solicitors, up one from last year, who meet our criteria for inclusion in the count for this table – which is that they spend at least half of their time on planning and related work.

Its solicitor numbers are due to go up again when Norton Rose Fulbright’s Duncan Field, who has risen to joint fourth in our individual rankings, joins in April. Instructions being handled by the firm include acting for Stansted Airport on its bid to increase the cap on its annual passenger numbers and advising the Battersea Power Station Development Company on its overhaul of the London landmark.

One consultant described Town Legal as "a fresh new practice which seems to be attracting some of the best planning law talent". Another said: "Their advice is as good as you’ll get anywhere, but it’s given without fuss and with a charm that fits perfectly with what they got away from their corporate backgrounds to start; a law firm with personality."

To see an extended version of the table above, please click here. *NOTE* The table above was updated on 04/04/19 to include further information supplied by Keystone Law.

To see a list of planning partners at these firms, please click here. 

With 79 planning solicitors, Pinsent Masons is by far the largest employer of specialist planning lawyers in our survey. Apart from its 21 planning partners, Pinsent Masons describes five legal directors and three senior consultants as "partner equivalents". The firm reports a diverse range of instructions across sectors including housing, commercial projects, and major infrastructure. Key projects include advising the Greater London Authority on the mayor’s call-in of the 3,000-home Beam Park development in Havering and Barking & Dagenham, acting for Delancey on a 1,000-home development in Elephant & Castle, and advising government agency Highways England on a Development Consent Order application for major road improvements close to Stonehenge. 

One consultant described working with the practice as "a pleasure", adding: "They promote a team atmosphere to the benefit of their client." Another praised the firm’s "professional, well-resourced and highly effective approach".

Eversheds Sutherland is the second largest employer in our table, with 41 planning solicitors. The practice’s clients include National Grid, which it is advising on the UK elements of the North Sea Link Interconnector project. The firm also audited the planning application for the athletes village at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and is providing ongoing advice to the Department for Transport in relation to the HS2 high speed rail link. One local authority client praised the firm’s "clear and concise advice" and the team’s ability "to identify key issues in complex matters very quickly".

Rising from sixth to fourth in the table,Clarke Willmott is described by one consultant as providing "diligent professional advice with a smile". Achievements reported by the firm’s 11 planning solicitors include advising LinkCity on its successful application for a 26-storey private rented sector development in Bristol, set to be the tallest residential building in the city, and advising housebuilder Mactaggart & Mickel in connection with its successful application for 465 new dwellings in Churchdown near Tewkesbury. Another consultant described the practice as "a force to be reckoned with".

Mills & Reeve reports key instructions, including acting on new settlements, including Dunsfold Park in Surrey and Otterpool Park Garden Town in Kent. One consultant praised the firm’s "comprehensive and reliable planning service" and its ability "to deal with the most complex issues."

Further changes take place further down the table. Clyde & Co and DLA Piper have both moved up several places in the table to claim joint sixth place. Clyde & Co, which has risen through the rankings in recent years and moves up from ninth last year, is advising on projects including the proposed expansion of Shepperton Studios in Surrey, plans for a 4,000-home urban extension in Canterbury, and the 2,500-home Dunton Hills Garden Village in Essex. The team also recently secured consent for 375 homes on the site of Wolverton railway works in Milton Keynes after resisting a claim for judicial review.

DLA Piper moves up to joint sixth, from tenth in last year’s survey, despite its roster of planning solicitors falling from 23 to 20. It reports a series of infrastructure instructions, including work on HS2, drafting the airports National Policy Statement for the Department of Transport, and seeking development consent for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge railway on behalf of the East West Rail Company. Other projects include advising on regeneration plans at York Central and drafting municipal planning legislation for the government of Afghanistan.

Womble Bond Dickinson jumps from 25th place last year to 12th in the 2019 rankings. The practice is advising on a series of infrastructure and residential projects, including three offshore wind and two nuclear Development Consent Order applications, aviation work for Bristol Airport, and developments for government agency Homes England. In the last 12 months the practice has taken on five planning solicitors, increasing the size of its team from 22 to 27.

Osborne Clarke takes joint ninth place - up from 18th in 2018 and 28th four years ago. Anna Harlow was recently promoted to associate director. Instructions include advising the Gwent Farmers Consortium in its bid to secure consent for the first renewable energy scheme under the Welsh Developments of National Significance regime. The practice also acted for Welbeck Strategic Land to successfully defend a judicial review brought by South Gloucestershire Council in an attempt to overturn an appeal decision granting consent for 350 homes and a care facility for the elderly.

Squire Patton Boggs and Irwin Mitchell have moved up the table of highest-rated firms to 16th equal, alongside several other firms. Squire Patton Boggs reports a lower number of planning solicitors than it did last year. Partner David Hardy says this is accounted for by the firm’s "slightly more restricted interpretation" of the survey criteria this year.

The firm formerly known as Bircham Dyson Bell has also seen its ranks swell following the merger in December last year with Pitmans that led to the creation of BDB Pitmans. Partner Christina Daniels and her team came on board following the merger and Dalee Kaur has also joined as a legal director from DLA Piper. The firm, which sits at joint 16th in the rankings, now has 34 planning solicitors, up from 29 a year ago. Instructions include acting for government adviser Highways England on the Lower Thames Crossing, advising London Luton Airport on a planned expansion, and several projects for Transport for London, including Crossrail 2, the Bakerloo Line extension, and opposing Heathrow Airport’s expansion.

The biggest drop in the number of planning solicitors is seen at Shakespeare Martineau, where the team has almost halved in size compared to a year ago. Numbers fell from 11 to six after the departure of Louise Portman to Highways England, Bernadette Hillman to Asserson, and Paul Hunt and Sarah Hollis to Howes Percival. Associate partner Paul Wakefield says: "We are currently seeking to rebalance the team with the recruitment of a number of junior solicitors, who have not yet taken up their posts."

To see an extended list of planning solicitor moves including moves at below partner level, please click here. 

While Town Legal’s Simon Ricketts retains the top spot in the individual rankings for another year, there are significant changes further down the table. DLA Piper partner Trevor Ivory enters the table at fourth place, a position shared with seven of his peers, including Walker Morris partner Richard Sagar. One developer highlights Sagar’s "tenacity and attention to detail" which result in "application and appeal victories that others may not secure". 

To see a longer version of the table above, please click here. 

Also tied in fourth place are two long-established occupants of the higher reaches of the survey: Hogan Lovells’ Michael Gallimore and Pinsent Masons’ Richard Ford.

Clarke Willmott partner Chris Charlton, Eversheds Sutherland partner Stuart Andrews, and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner partner Tim Smith also share fourth place. Charlton is described as "knowledgeable, insightful and creative" by one client, who added that his "willingness to talk through problems is valuable to clients and consultants alike". One developer praised Andrews’ "pragmatic and commercial approach to planning law".

Also fourth equal are Clarke Willmott partner Caroline Waller and Norton Rose Fulbright partner Duncan Field. One consultant praises Waller’s"pragmatic and helpful advice that assists in enabling complex issues to be resolved quickly". Another consultant cites Field’s "considerable knowledge on major airport developments" and his track record of "working constructively with local authorities".

In the local authority rankings, the top of the table remains unchanged, with the Westminster City Council legal team at number one and the City of London taking the number two spot. The London Borough of Southwark stays in third place, but is now sharing the position with Guildford Borough Council. Fifth place is a three-way split between Birmingham City Council, Lambeth Council, and Transport for London.

Westminster’s Isaac Carter topped the poll for local authority planning solicitors in 2019, rising from fifth place in last year’s survey. The City of London’s Deborah Cluett and Eleanor Penn at the Royal Borough of Greenwich both move down one place to a respective second and third equal. Penn shares the number three spot with Jay Akbar at Westminster City Council, Jon Gorst at Greenwich Council, and Sarah White at Guildford Borough Council.


1. Simon Ricketts, Town Legal

Ricketts claims the number one spot in our rankings for the 10th year running. "Simon’s considered thinking, allied to his planning knowledge, is a great help to clients facing difficult and risky commercial decisions," says one developer. His instructions range from advising the promoters of the proposed Penzance Heliport to acting for Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in opposition to a basement development next to his grade I listed home. "There’s an ease to working with Simon that makes him so popular," says one consultant. "But there’s weighty substance behind his client face. Top of my list for legal advice."

2. Iain Gilbey, Pinsent Masons

Gilbey offers advice that is "always concise and spot-on", says one consultant. His instructions include acting for developer Lendlease on the regeneration of Elephant & Castle, advising biomedicalresearch charity Wellcome on an application to expand its Genome Campus, and acting for Hammonds Estate on its plans for 5,000 homes on land to the east of Chelmsford. "I find itimpressive that he sayswhat needs to be said and does not over-complicate," added the consultant. "This makes his advice so much more effective, as he makes complicated situations appear straightforward and easy to understand."

3. Neil Baker, Clarke Willmott

Baker is described by one consultant as "a consummate and highly experienced professional with a commercial and practical focus on the matters in hand." His recent instructions include acting for the University of Bath to secure planning permission for its school of management building. Baker advised developer LinkCity on its successful application for a 26-storey tower which, if completed as planned, will be Bristol’s tallestresidential building. Another consultant commended his "persistence and tenacity" and "precise and straightforward advice that allow projects to move forward quickly and efficiently".

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