Consultants are cautious about the economy, but optimistic about their businesses, by Richard Garlick

Planning consultants are, by and large, much less optimistic about the economy than they were a year ago. 55 per cent of respondents to our 2018 survey of planning consultants said that the economic climate for development would improve over the next 12 months. This year that figure has fallen to 12 per cent.

Yet there is no sign that consultants are commensurately pessimistic about the prospects for their businesses. More than half (52 per cent) say that their team will grow in the coming year, compared to four per cent who say it will contract.

That optimism may well be attributable to what seems to have been a generally prosperous 2018/19. Among the biggest 50 firms who reported income figures both this year and last year, average fee income was up by 11 per cent. Among the 100 biggest firms, the average number of chartered town planners employed rose from 18 to 21. Fee rates rose on average by three per cent.

This growth was not confined to the biggest firms. In fact, the number of chartered planners employed by the biggest ten firms was unchanged year on year. Three of the four fastest growers, in terms of numbers of chartered town planners employed - Lambert Smith Hampton, Iceni Projects and LUC - sit outside the top ten.

Elsewhere, the survey reveals a growing cynicism about the value offered by two key paid-for council development management services. In 2018, 33 per cent of respondents disagreed that paid-for Planning Performance Agreements usually represent good value-for-money. This year, that figure has gone up to 43 per cent. Twelve months ago, 43 per cent of consultants disagreed that paid-for pre-application discussions usually offered good value-for-money. This year, that figure has risen to 55 per cent.

That said, the survey results also reveal more supportive messages for the public sector from private sector professional advisers. Historically, consultants have tended to baulk at the suggestion that planning authorities should be allowed to increase application fees. But this year, they are evenly split, with 38 per cent voting for the proposal, and 38 per cent against. Moreover, a massive majority (92 per cent) identify a lack of resources for planning authorities as being to blame for constraining local plan production and timely decision-making on applications.

The management of the Planning Inspectorate will also be interested to read that 43 per cent of consultants agreed that, subject to certain conditions, charging appellants fees for planning inquiries would be acceptable in return for a definite decision timetable. In comparison, 37 per cent of respondents disagreed.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning // 

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