How the coronavirus crisis is affecting the planning consultancy market

Most planning consultancies have furloughed staff and introduced pay cuts to deal with dropping workloads caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but only a minority have announced redundancies, according to a survey by Planning.

Empty chairs: virus has had profound impact on the majority of the country's businesses (pic: Getty)
Empty chairs: virus has had profound impact on the majority of the country's businesses (pic: Getty)

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has had a profound impact on the country's businesses. And planning consultancies are no exception. To gauge how the crisis has affected the sector, we polled the firms with the 20 biggest planning teams according to the 2019 Planning Consultancy Survey.

Out of the seven practices that responded, four said that workloads had decreased, while two reported no effect and one said they had actually increased. James Bainbridge, head of planning and development at multi-disciplinary practice Carter Jonas, said the consultancy's planning teams are still "very busy". But clients are a "little more cautious" about starting projects, he said, which was unsurprising given the difficulties involved in carrying out consultations in an environment where public gathering are banned.

Click here to catch up with with all of Planning's coverage of the coronavirus crisis so far

Meanwhile, consultancies trying to progress applications are hamstrung as local authorities grapple with new emergency decision-making processes, like virtual planning committees. Bainbridge said: "I suspect the system is inevitably going to get a bit slower. Some projects won't kick off and things will take longer."

Simon James, managing director of DLP Planning, said his company is currently "snowed under", with the most intense pressures being felt by senior directors who are in the greatest demand from anxious clients. Marcus Adams, managing partner of urban design specialist consultancy JTP, which was not included in our survey, said the firm is still benefiting from the fillip to activity generated by December's decisive general election result. "Thankfully, we have momentum at the moment," he said.

Some new jobs are actually coming in, consultants report, offsetting hits to other parts of their workloads. Carter Jonas said it has received new public sector-related commissions while Nick Freer, chairman of David Lock Associates (DLA), said the Milton Keynes-based firm has bagged the rapid delivery of new facilities for the health service.

And even while national house builders are not taking sites forward, other developers will use the current crisis to pick up opportunities in the land market arising from less competition for sites, said James, adding: "There are still individuals who are pushing things forward."

But the bigger picture is that total work volumes are down. Two consultancies contacted by Planning privately put the hit to fees at 15 per cent for the month of April as projects are postponed. Residential work in particular has slowed down, said Bainbridge: "The vast majority of housebuilders have closed their sites but if they are promoting land they are obviously going to continue with that because we hope to be out of this crisis in a few months' time."

James said DLP had a string of planning appeals and local plan examinations scheduled when the coronavirus struck, all of which have had to be postponed due to the wider clampdown on public gatherings. DLA is "very fortunate" in the current circumstances because it focuses on strategic planning work, including masterplans, said Freer. Things will be tougher for those firms who specialise in planning inquiries and local plan examinations, he added.

Four of the seven firms said they have suffered the cancellations of jobs they have been commissioned for. Bainbridge said clients are tending to put jobs on hold rather than cancelling them with the "very few" that have taken the latter option at the very "early days" of the application process.

Five firms admitted that they have taken advantage of the government's furlough scheme under which it has agreed to pay 80 per cent of an employees' income up to a monthly maximum of £2,500. However three said they had not.

DLA is one of the minority of practices that has not taken advantage of the furlough scheme yet, said Freer, although he does not rule it out. "There's no change to employment arrangements because we start in a very strong position but in a week or two, we may be in a different situation."

James said that while DLP's emphasis has been on safeguarding jobs, it has had to furlough some staff. JTP has not put any staff on furlough yet although it may be forced to take fresh look at this situation in a few weeks, said Adams.

Four of the consultancies surveyed said they have implemented pay cuts. They include DLP, which reported that it has cut pay across the board, with directors all taking "substantial" salary reductions. "We don't know how the income flows will be in four or eight weeks' time so are guarding against that," said James. At another company, which did not wish to be named, those enjoying the highest wages have voluntarily agreed to a 10 per cent pay reduction.

But only two respondents said they have announced redundancies. Adams said: "We're trying to keep our team together and are not talking about reductions. At the moment, we are busy and hopefully momentum will continue."

Looking ahead to the rest of 2020, four companies said they expect the coronavirus outbreak to reduce the total value of new and ongoing instructions. Nobody surveyed expected the values of such instructions to increase for the rest of the year. One anonymous planning consultant boss reported that he is projecting a 30 per cent reduction.

Much depends on the nature of the downturn and the speed of recovery once the heath crisis abates, said consultants. "Certainly for the next three months, we expect a slow down," said Bainbridge. Adams said a counterpart in Shanghai reported that his business recovered rapidly after the city's recent re-opening for business. But while he believes consultancies can keep moving forward for now, the longer-term picture is murkier. "Eight weeks is manageable for economies to reactivate themselves, but the longer it goes on, the more damage it will do."

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