Planning consultancy: the biggest employers and fastest growers 2019

Exclusive: the consultants that employ the most planning professionals, the fastest growing firms and much more.

(Pic: Getty)
(Pic: Getty)

Given the uncertain economic times we have been living through in the last year, the planning consultancy employment market has proved remarkably steady. The number of chartered town planners working for the ten biggest consultant employers that filled in the survey both in 2018 and this year remained unchanged at 941, although this figure masks variations between different companies (see below).

Indeed, on some measures, the consultancy employment market appears to have grown. In total, the 100 biggest employers who responded to last year’s survey employed 1,768 chartered town planners. This year, the total stands at 2,148.

At the same time, when you look at all respondents to the survey, the average firm is employing fewer chartered town planners. Comparing all the firms that completed this year’s survey with those that did so in previous years, it emerges that, for the first time in five years, the average number of chartered planners has declined. This year, the average was 14.7, compared to 16 in 2018, 15.5 in 2017, 14.7 in 2016 and 12.9 in 2015. 

In terms of individual companies, for the fifth year in a row Savills comes out top for the number of chartered town planners it employs. What’s more, the company’s planning headcount continues to rise. Between September 2017 and September 2018, Savills added ten more chartered town planners. In the same period between 2018 and 2019 it added a further nine, bringing the total to 186 across 21 offices. 

New hires

According to head of planning David Jackson, the growth in the past 12 months can be partly explained by new hires at Savills’ Newcastle office, which it launched last year. Another factor is expansion in the company’s economics team. "Economics increasingly provides a key underpinning to all projects, ensuring all three aspects of the sustainability case are addressed," says Jackson.

Similarly, Savills has continued to build up its heritage team, which it also launched two years ago. "Heritage issues are often of key importance in urban settings," notes Jackson, who says that his team has been involved in an increasing number of regeneration projects, "with a noticeable rise in instructions involving the repurposing of retail".

Barton Willmore and Lichfields retain their second and third places in the ranking, with 152 and 118 chartered town planners respectively, although neither saw their headcount change significantly in the last year. Fourth place, meanwhile, is occupied by WSP | Indigo, which was formed when multi-disciplinary consultancy WSP bought Indigo in May this year. Neither company appeared in last year’s consultancy survey. 

In a statement issued when the merger was completed, WSP said that the deal, combined with additional planning hires, formed part of its "drive to become the top planning consultancy in the UK". It reports that it has retained all Indigo planning staff during the six months since the merger.

The inclusion of WSP | Indigo bumps RPS into sixth position (Arup retains its fifth place), while Avison Young and Pegasus Planning Group share seventh place. The former completed its acquisition of GVA in February this year, at one fell swoop establishing itself as one of the biggest employers of chartered town planners in the UK, where previously it had employed none. 

In last year’s survey, GVA reported that it employed 91 chartered planners, while this year Avison Young said it had 80, a net loss of 11. According to Jo Davis, national head of planning, development and regeneration, the reduction is due to a change in the way in which the planning business is structured. She describes the strategy as "national expertise with local knowledge". This means that the company has retained its regional network, but relies on national experts on specialist topics to work across the country to support projects as required. 

"It’s about putting the right advisers in front of the right clients, rather than each office covering every specialism," says Davis. "It’s about making our service more efficient."

JLL returns to the ranking in ninth place, while the top ten is completed by AECOM, which was in ninth place last year.

Outside the top ten, there are other interesting developments. For instance, Iceni Projects has moved from 17th to 12th place, having increased the number of chartered town planners it employs from 36 to 46. 

According to the firm’s chief executive, Ian Anderson, the increase is mostly due to junior members of the team gaining chartered status in the last year, rather than a big recruitment drive. Indeed, the number of fee earners employed by Iceni has grown, but only from 52 to 54. "We invested in some good young people a few years back, so quite a lot of it is people being successful – at the first time of asking – in becoming members of the RTPI," says Anderson. 

However, Iceni has also hired a couple of chartered planners in the last year in order to provide additional capacity in its Manchester and Glasgow offices.

Click on the graphic below to view the full, expanded table

Remarkable growth

Even more remarkable growth in chartered town planners can be found at Lambert Smith Hampton. In the last year, the company has increased the number of chartered planners it employs from 24 to 35, which means that it jumps up the ranking from 23rd place to 19th. Head of planning for London and the South East, Mary-Jane O’Neill, says that the growth is due to a strategic decision by the multidisciplinary company to focus on planning.

"There has been more of a focus in the business in joining up the life cycle of land," she says. "Land comes in the door through the agents, and if we can then provide planning, regeneration and urban design advice, it completes the circle in terms of all the other services that we provide." Growing demand for advice on town centre regeneration and housing have also contributed to the expansion, she says. 

O’Neill adds that the firm’s business plan for next year involves further investment in recruitment of both chartered planners and more junior grades. Ultimately, she says, the goal is to grow the planning business to a point where it can compete with the teams at other major property consultancies. "It’s about competing with the likes of Savills and Avison Young, which have had their planning teams for a very long time," she says. "Here, it wasn’t seen as a major focus, but that has shifted."

Further down the table, LUC has also seen strong growth in chartered town planners in the last 12 months, and as a result has moved from 34th to 27th position. Last year, it employed 13 chartered planners compared to 20 this year – percentage-wise, the highest level of growth in the top 50. 

LUC board director for planning Philip Smith says that the growth was partly due to some junior members of the team acquiring chartered status. The company also expanded its team of chartered planners helping councils to provide five-year housing land supplies and advising on other "more technical planning and housing issues", Smith says. 

Apart from Avison Young, the only company in the top 50 to see a significant fall in the number of chartered town planners in the past twelve months was Bidwells. Last year, the company employed 38 chartered planners. This year, the equivalent figure is 30, which has meant that its ranking has fallen from 15th in 2018 to 22nd this year.

However, according to partner David Bainbridge, the fall is not due to a decline in the volume of work coming in. Rather, he says, it is due to recent changes in the firm’s staffing structure that mean it now has fewer senior professionals, and a higher proportion of its fee income is being generated by people who are yet to complete their RTPI qualification.

"The balance of fee-earners has changed such that there are fewer partners in particular," he says. "At lower levels there can be a greater output when people are not so bound-up in management matters."

Bainbridge says the change of approach is partly explained by the uncertain economic outlook – with Brexit still casting a long shadow over the economy, it makes sense to keep staffing costs down. But the decision was also made to allow younger members of the team to progress, he says.

Click on the graphic below to enlarge

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