20 things we learned from our 2019 survey of planning consultancies

The Planning Consultancy Market Report tracks changes in areas including staffing levels, fee income and market sentiment to provide a uniquely detailed insight into the world of private sector planning. Here are 20 key things we learned this year.

Consultancies: latest survey of sector published earlier this month
Consultancies: latest survey of sector published earlier this month

STAFFING

Sixty per cent of the top 50 firms in our survey either increased or maintained the number of chartered planners employed over the last 12 months. Forty-four per cent saw an increase in staffing levels. Just over one in four firms decreased their number of chartered planners. One in eight did not provide figures last year from which which to draw comparisons.

Growth in staffing levels was driven by smaller firms. The total number of chartered planners at the top 50 companies that reported comparable data for the largest two years rose by 36.5. The number of chartered planners at the top ten largest employers in our survey increased by just one. 

Lambert Smith Hampton reported the largest increase in staffing levels. The firm increased the number of chartered planners on staff by 11, from 24 to 35, taking it to 19th place in our table of largest employers. Iceni Projects also saw a dramatic increase, up 10 from 36 to 46, making the company the joint 12th largest employer in our survey.

Avison Young saw the biggest reduction in the number of chartered town planners on staff. The firm reported a fall from 91 to 80, a figure which still makes the firm the joint seventh largest employer in our survey. In percentage terms, Bidwells saw the biggest reduction in the number of chartered planners employed, down from 38 to 30 - a fall of 11 per cent.  

More than half of firms expect their planning team to grow in the year ahead. One in four survey respondents said they were unsure and one in five said they expected staffing levels to remain the same. Just 2.5 per cent of respondents predicted the team would reduce in size.

FEES

Maximum fee rates have fallen. Only 37 per cent of firms reported daily maximum fee rates of more than £1,000, compared to 60 per cent in last year’s survey

Barton Willmore reported the highest maximum fee rate in our survey. The firm charges a maximum daily fee of £2,325. Bidwells reported the second highest maximum fee of £2,100 while Avison Young came in third with £2,080. Five firms charge a maximum daily fee of £2,000: Boyer; Carter Jonas; MFS Professional / Rumball Sedgwick; Prior + Partners; and Vail Williams.

Forty-four per cent of firms expect to maintain fees at current levels for the coming year. Twenty-four per cent of respondents said fees are likely to rise by up to four per cent while 28 per cent said they expect increase fees by between five and nine per cent. 

INCOME

Total fee income rose by more than 13 per cent. Aggregate income reported by the top 50 highest earning firms grew from £474 million to £537 million. Average fee income per firm rose from £9 million to £10 million in the same period.

Three-quarters of the top 50 highest earning firms that reported comparable figures for two years saw annual fee income rise over 12 months. Eight firms saw annual fee income fall while two companies saw income remain steady in percentage terms.

Fisher German reported the largest annual increase in fee income. The firm saw income rise from £1,462,000 to £1,981,000, an increase of 35 per cent. Arup, the highest fee earner in our table, reported the second largest increase in annual income, up 31 per cent from £109,790,000 to £144,149,000. DWD Property + Planning and Hyas Associates both saw annual income rise by 30 per cent. 

Peacock + Smith saw the largest annual decrease in fee income. The firm saw income fall from £1,830,000 to £1,625,000, a decrease of 11 per cent. Cerda Planning reported the second largest annual fall in annual income, down eight per cent from £,1200,000 to £1,100,000. Nexus Planning and Smart Planning both saw annual income fall by six per cent. 

SECTORS

Sixty-two per cent of respondents’ revenue comes from private sector clients. Analysis of income by client type reveals nine per cent comes from central government departments and agencies, eight per cent from community and neighbourhood groups, and less than one per cent from planning authorities. Twenty per cent comes from other public bodies. 

Development work accounts for 45 per cent of all consultants’ fee income. Infrastructure work accounts for 42 per cent, strategies and studies for nine per cent, while four per cent comes from other planning services.

Transport represents the largest planning sub-sector by fee income. Twenty-seven per cent of all fee income relates to transport planning, while 19 per cent relates to greenfield housing projects.

ECONOMIC CLIMATE

Optimism about the economic climate for development has fallen dramatically. Only 12 per cent of respondents said they expected the economic climate to improve over the next 12 months, compared to 55 per cent in last year’s survey.

PUBLIC SECTOR PERFORMANCE

Three-quarters of consultants believe local authority plan-making performance is unsatisfactory. Only one in five respondents said they were happy with local authority decision-making. Thirty-four per cent said the Planning Inspectorate’s decision-making performance is satisfactory.

More than nine in ten respondents raised concerns about a lack of resources for local planning authorities. Ninety-two per cent said lack of resources is a major constraint on local plan production and timely decisions on applications. Thirty-eight per cent of firms said planning authorities should be allowed to increase fees.

The majority of firms believe paid-for pre-application discussions are not good value for money. Only 32 per cent said these paid-for discussions are good value and only 26 per cent believed paid-for Planning Performance Agreements are good value.

GOVERNMENT POLICY

Views on the merits of permitted development rights have shifted. Forty-two per cent of respondents said the benefits of permitted development rights extensions in England since 2012 have outweighed any harms, compared to 35 per cent who disagreed. This compares to 49 per cent who agreed and 21 per cent who disagreed last year.


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