Why planning consultants are more positive about work levels as the lockdown eases

Most planning consultancies in our updated survey report that demand for their services is now stronger compared to the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, but the vast majority of firms are still pessimistic about the long-term impact on workloads.

Planning consultants: more upbeat about workloads compared to a month ago
Planning consultants: more upbeat about workloads compared to a month ago

With the government tentatively easing working and social restrictions earlier this month, Planning has decided to revisit its survey on how the country's biggest planning consultancies are dealing with the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. Some 13 firms responded to Planning’s questions sent to the biggest 40 firms in the 2019 Planning Consultancy Survey in terms of numbers of chartered town planners employed.

Of these respondents, nine reported that their workload has dropped, with only one reporting an increase and one saying it has had no effect. The results are similar to our previous survey conducted in early April. However, while three firms in the latest study said clients have cancelled commissions, ten said this has not happened and that most clients are opting to pause projects instead. In contrast, last month's research found that seven out of 13 firms said clients had cancelled work.

The latest feedback suggests that the picture on consultants’ workloads looks less bleak now than in the immediate aftermath of lockdown in early April. Like many others, Avison Young saw projects put on ice during the first two to three weeks of the lockdown. “Since then we’ve seen some of those projects come back from on hold,” said Jo Davis, the company’s managing director for planning, development and regeneration. The return to work at construction sites over the last couple of weeks has provided a further fillip to workloads, she added.

Anne Pawsey, senior planner at planning consultancy Ridge and Partners, agreed that the impact on workload has not been as significant as it looked initially. “It is more positive than we originally thought,” she said, adding that smaller schemes have been more likely to be put on hold than strategic planning and new town projects. James Bainbridge, head of planning and development at Carter Jonas, said the firm’s planning practice has “not seen a more significant slowdown in business” since the onset of the lockdown.

Andrew Bridge, managing partner at Fisher German, said the multidisciplinary firm’s planning workload has remained “remarkably resilient.” Part of this confidence stems from the steps taken by government to keep the decision-making show on the road by allowing councils to hold planning committee meetings online. “Compared to where we were a month ago, when there were a lot of unknowns, greater clarity is coming through,” said Bridge.

Pawsey said Ridge and Partners have been able to assure clients that it is worthwhile to keep projects going because the planning process, unlike so many other parts of the economy during the last two months, has not completely ground to a halt. She said that a survey of planning authorities in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire carried out by her firms shows that, while many councils have postponed committee dates, they are taking steps to hold virtual meetings. “Work has continued to come, although at a slower rate.”

Some of this work is a direct product of the crisis. Avison Young has seen an increase in work from public sector bodies assessing how to take forward or reprogramme regeneration plans in the light of transformed market conditions, said Davis. “Authorities working through regeneration projects or that have key projects in preparation are trying to understand how they deliver going forward.”

Bainbridge said Carter Jonas has seen new work from private clients, including a scheme for a new film studio as well as various residential and regeneration projects. These new jobs are generally long term, he adds: “People are not wanting to start projects that won’t be coming out of the ground until after the next 12 to 18 months.”

While many councils are getting their decision-making act together, the Planning Inspectorate’s decision to pause appeal inquiries and local plan examinations is a headache for many consultancies. Of the 13 firms that responded to our survey, eight reported that these postponements have led to a fall in workload, although two said they have had no effect. Davis said that preparatory work for appeals and examinations still goes on.

So far, fees do not appear to have suffered during the lockdown, with eight firms surveyed reporting no drop in levels against four seeing a decrease. Davis said that any drop in income has been due to schemes being put on hold rather than fee rates being cut. But another senior consultant suspected that it will be hard to maintain existing fee levels if the wider economic picture deteriorates during the months ahead: “There doesn’t seem to be pressure yet, but we would be very surprised if that stays the same for long.”

Overall, the survey confirmed that the overwhelming majority of planning consultancies expect the lockdown to reduce the volume of work for the rest of this year. A dozen firms expected workload to diminish, with just one expressing confidence that it will stay the same. While upbeat about Avison Young’s response so far, Davis had few doubts that workloads will suffer, based on previous experience. “We saw that in the 2008 financial crisis, so inevitably it’s going to happen again.”

*Next week: We report on the survey findings on consultants' staffing levels

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