WSP | Indigo moots growth in 2020 after Indigo acquisition

Consultancy WSP | Indigo, formed after WSP's acquisition earlier this year of fellow consultancy Indigo Planning, has told Planning in an exclusive interview that it may 'spread its wings' geographically.

Manchester: City's WSP team recently merged with Birmingham office
Manchester: City's WSP team recently merged with Birmingham office

Announcing its acquisition of Indigo Planning earlier this year, WSP described the deal as part of a plan to become "the top planning consultancy in the UK".

Planning spoke to WSP head of planning discipline Darren Oldham and Indigo Planning founding director Phil Villars to find out more about the acquisition and the company's plans for the future. 

How do your roles differ and how will you be working together?

Darren Oldham: My role is head of planning discipline, which includes town planning but also includes other areas. The planning discipline is meant to provide front end services to a range of clients across the UK and the town planning element, which has seen Indigo and WSP come together, sits within that planning discipline.

Phil Villars: I’m one of the founding directors of Indigo, taking the company from two of us up to about 90 by the time we were acquired earlier this year. My role looking ahead is to head up the town planning and environmental management side of the business - 200 people in total and somewhere over 100 chartered town planners. I report directly to Darren.

The teams in Manchester and Birmingham have recently merged. What’s happening in London and Leeds?

Villars: I’m based in central London, in the City, which was Indigo’s main headquarters office. The plan is that we’re staying in this office and we have integrated about 25 WSP colleagues. In Birmingham, we had quite a small team of six or seven people who are integrated into the new WSP office in the city. In Leeds, the plan at the moment is that the Indigo team will stay in their current location in the city centre.

Oldham: The intention for Leeds is we will be looking to co-locate all of those colleagues into one location in the city centre, probably at some point in 2021. We’ve just finished doing something similar in Southampton. 

How is the planning consultancy business branded now and how will it be branded in the future?

Villars: At some stage next year it will fall under the WSP brand name and Indigo will fall away. Over a period of years we’ve built up the Indigo brand, it’s recognised, and we felt it was right to keep the name for the time being, but at some stage we expect it to fall away.

WSP Indigo employs 105 chartered town planners according to the latest Planning consultancy market report. How many planners did WSP and Indigo have before the merger?

Villars: It’s roughly a 50/50 split - a doubling of the number of chartered town planners who are now in the business.

Have all chartered town planners employed by WSP and Indigo before the acquisition been retained?

Oldham: Inevitably there’s always going to be a degree of churn in a large organisation, but I believe we haven’t lost a single chartered town planner since the announcement.

Villars: That’s right. Two planners have left, but that wasn’t because of integration reasons. In terms of integration, over a period of six months, we haven’t lost any planners from the business.

You say you want to grow through recruitment. Can you specify numbers? Do you have an overall target for chartered town planners in mind?

Villars: We’ve just recruited another three people in the last few weeks. I don’t want to put an actual figure on it but that growth will carry on next year and in future years.

Oldham: We are looking to continue to recruit, but the important thing for us is not to recruit for recruitment’s sake. We need to reflect a little bit now. We feel we have a very good sense of the marketplace across the planning discipline. We will be using that to grow the town planning team over 2020.

Who are your most recent recruits?

Villars: Those are at senior planner associate level in the south east - in London, Guildford and Basingstoke - mid-range with good experience. Most of our planners are generalist planners, but one of the three is a socio-economic expert. Another has a residential background.

Can you elaborate on the markets and locations in which you see the greatest opportunities for growth?

Villars: It’s fair to say that Indigo was very broad in terms of its experience. Indigo was primarily private sector focused, WSP more so public sector, although not exclusively. It’s good coming together in that respect. We see growth across the UK and across sectors. 

Oldham: We have over 20 offices in the UK where we have a planning discipline presence. We have to look at that and where we might want to spread our wings in a geographical sense. That’s something we’ll be looking at over the course of 2020. Broadly speaking, the planning discipline is 50/50 split public/private sector, but in terms of the work we are doing in a town planning sense, before the Indigo acquisition, it was much more focused on the public sector and large infrastructure projects. It’s fair to say we consider ourselves a development consent order (DCO) specialist. There are a whole range of complementary sectors where we want to grow.

Can you provide any more detail about what the company’s growth might look like in a geographic sense?

Oldham: The focus for 2020 will be on growing the existing teams in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. Where’s the next obvious location? Is that Bristol, Cardiff or Newcastle? That would be the type of conversation we’d like to have. We need to spent time with one another, with our clients, with related disciplines and understand where the opportunities are for the business. 

Our recent consultancy survey showed the majority of consultants felt that the economic climate for development will decline in the next 12 months. What’s your own perspective and how do you intend to grow your business in this context?

Villars: Clearly at the moment, with the election and Brexit, there is some concern in the marketplace in terms of uncertainty. Generally the underlying trends from our perspective are positive. There’s an underlying need for instance for houses across the country, for infrastructure, and we see that continuing. One area we’re strong in is the interface between the private and the public sector. We see that as a growing area, as local authorities seek to develop their own land for regeneration, whether that’s housing or commercial or education. We’re actually fairly positive about the underlying position in the market as we look ahead. Clearly there is a softening in the market because of some of the uncertainty, but hopefully in 2020 that will move on.

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