Consultants Survey - Staff issue harms progress

Consultants are finding plenty of opportunities for growth but staffing is still a considerable problem, notes Susanna Gillman.

Work for planning consultancies continues to bloom this year, nurtured by legislative changes and a wealth of renewal projects. The public and private sectors are providing plenty of bread and butter for the business.

RPS Group remains top of the ladder with more than 500 fee-earners working on planning. Director Paula Carney says the regeneration agenda is driving the sector. "The market is still very buoyant, particularly in London," she finds. "Winning the 2012 Olympics is giving a real boost and the regeneration of the Thames Gateway and east London is also coming forward. This has definitely been a growth year, as will the next."

RPS head of planning Bill Strachan adds that significant growth is also reflected outside London, particularly on housing schemes. "There is considerable buoyancy among house builders but it is not easy to get planning permission for housing anywhere, whether on greenfield or brownfield sites. Yet housing has always provided most planning work and in my view it always will," he predicts.

Staff at CgMs Ltd believe that the market is still buoyant and has become more diverse. "At any one time the sector is changing," says managing director Erica Mortimer. "At the moment a lot of consultancy work is from government and public services. This is generally not sensitive to the market but changes its nature as a result of policy decisions."

Mortimer's colleague Mike Straw highlights one emerging opportunity for independent consultancies. "The days where chartered surveying firms could sustain large in-house planning teams are coming to an end, with the exception of those like GVA Grimley and Drivers Jonas where planning is a big part of the core business," he argues. "Surveying firms are now commonly owned by overseas banks or agencies and their main aim is to do deals. For them, planning consultancies of 20 or so staff cannot be supported."

But Alastair Crowdy, head of planning and environment at Cushman & Wakefield Healey & Baker (CWHB), stresses that his firm has seen a good deal of growth in planning over the past 12 months. "Much of this is being led by the public sector, with an emphasis on major regeneration proposals," he explains.

Scott Wilson, Drivers Jonas, Barton Willmore, Capita Symonds, White Young Green and CgMs Ltd have seen the most substantial increases in the number of chartered planners on their payroll since last year. This year's survey lists nine firms with more than 50 fully qualified planners and 52 practices with at least ten. It is a far cry from 1997, when 40 was enough to top the table.

But as the market grows, so does the burden on staff. Finding experienced planners is increasingly arduous. With burgeoning workloads, consultancies want to attract more people to ease the burden on current employees while preventing existing staff from being poached by vigorous recruitment agencies and headhunters.

Ian Tant, joint senior partner at Barton Willmore, says recruitment is an almost constant process as people are promoted or move on. The UK's second biggest employer of chartered planners has been turning to recruitment agencies. "We continue to have a good high workload coming through. It tends to be long-term projects. Planning is ever more protracted since trying to get development through the system takes more time," says Tant.

Despite efforts to promote careers in the built environment, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Arup director of planning Chris Tunnell is one of the few London-based managers finding the supply of planners beginning to ease. But he warns that employers must be able to guarantee interesting projects as well as a good salary.

Competition between rival firms is fierce. "We have to try to make ourselves irresistible. It is quite a small pond we all swim in," says GL Hearn development director David Napier. Roger Tym & Partners managing partner Bill Brisbane adds: "We are trying every means possible to attract people to our firm. We try to ensure that we retain staff, so a lot of effort has gone into human resources to maintain a happy working environment."

John Smith, Jacobs Babtie's divisional director for planning, says that taking on extra staff is part of a merry-go-round of replacement. "We have strategies to attract people," he says. "The agencies are working hard, but sometimes we find people ourselves. I identified a recently appointed senior planner from work done externally with a local authority."

"We are being bombarded by planning graduates or people who have been qualified for a year or two," says Mortimer. "The most difficult area is to find associate director level people with around seven to eight years in practice. Planning is becoming so specialised and complicated that you need a large team to keep up with all the complexities in policy changes, retail studies and sustainability appraisals."

Richard Flack, senior partner at Development Planning Partnership (DPP), says that recruitment problems are holding back growth. "It tends to vary throughout the country and so does the quality of people," he notes. "We are deploying all possible measures, from word of mouth to recruitment consultants and advertising. We have to think laterally. It is paying off as we have managed to recruit, but we still need additional staff. It is a bun fight for the same people."

Bournemouth-based Terence O'Rourke has added six planners since this time last year. Chairman Terence O'Rourke believes the market is less buoyant but will continue to grow. "There is more emphasis on regeneration and energy and less on traditional projects," he reports. But finding the right staff remains problematic, even on a modest expectation of growth.

"It certainly does not help us and we would rather not expand at all than grow without good-quality people," he insists.

Turley Associates director Rob Turley points out that the growing complexity of the planning process puts greater pressure on experienced people. "It is a larger market but there are not as many people with the experience to do the work," he notes. Yet the company has managed to take on around 30 planners and urban designers across its nine regional offices in the past 12 months.

CWHB also reports recruiting difficulties. "There is a fair amount of people out there but it is difficult to secure strong candidates," says Crowdy. "Everybody is looking for top-class employees and the market is very competitive. It is a chicken-and-egg situation because everyone is very busy, but we need to take the time to go out and get people to help out."

The staffing picture is no better further down the scale. Thames Valley practice Bell Cornwell Partnership also tends to headhunt when it comes to augmenting its 17-strong team. "Work is very plentiful at the moment, particularly because of the changes in planning legislation," says partner Linda Saunders. "To a certain extent recruitment is holding back growth, although it has never been our aim to have more than around 20 staff because we like to try to keep a personal handle on each job."

Martin Tonks of MT Town Planning, now in his third year as a sole practitioner, finds it surprising that more local authorities do not take advantage of the experience and competitive rates available at the micro level.

"I know that many big consultancies have resource and capacity problems and that smaller firms can be incredibly flexible," he observes.

Some firms are trying to find proactive ways round the recruitment problem.

"We have decided to recruit ahead of what we need on the basis that someone will always leave," says Giulia Bunting, head of planning at the London office of Drivers Jonas. "Recruitment problems are not holding back our growth but it means people are working harder. We are reluctant to turn work away but we may be a little more selective in the work that we bid for."

Bunting believes Drivers Jonas is a company that job-hunters would have on their shortlist anyway because of its reputation and the type of work that it handles. "In the past we would have advertised for people but now we tend to get most through recruitment consultants. They send us CVs all the time. It amazes me that the people sending in their CVs are not the same people who are replying to adverts."

Some consultancies are in the fortunate position of being approached by individuals looking to move. "We tend to find that people approach us mostly and I think that will continue to be the case. I cannot remember when we last advertised for jobs but we have grown substantially," says O'Rourke. Turley Associates also receive plenty of speculative approaches.

Making more use of non-planners is one way out of the bind, suggests Hepher Dixon partner Roger Hepher. "Some aspects of our work can be packaged out to intelligent people with no planning training," he argues. "That includes quite a lot of basic research on planning histories, assessing the physical qualities of a site and that sort of thing. I can see us moving towards para-planners doing that basic work with qualified and experienced planners concentrating more on the delivery."

Acquisitions and mergers remain an option for consultancies keen to bump up their staff levels and bring in additional skills. White Young Green followed up last year's buyout of Hawthorne Kamm with a successful bid for Wyn Thomas Gordon Lewis of Cardiff in February. GVA Grimley's merger with Mappin Planning & Development has boosted its presence in the Scottish market.

CSJ Planning Consultants Ltd bought into the Midlands market by merging with Brooke Smith Associates of Birmingham this time last year. Capita Symonds augmented its presence in the planning market when it took Buchanan Consulting Engineers, Norman & Dawbarn and Percy Thomas Partnership under its wing. A number of leading firms picked up staff departing from the ailing Chesterton before it went into receivership in March.

"We have always been flexible because we never know what is coming round the corner," says Hepher. "Over the years we have spotted opportunities for bringing key individuals into the company or getting the firm involved in a new sector of activity. I think our starting point would be simply to grow organically and take on individuals. But if we came across a small team and the fit was right, we would be quite happy to absorb them."

According to Mike Carpenter, whose independent practice Carpenter Planning Consultants joined forces with Bidwells 18 months ago, merger activity is led by the market. "In a business climate you cannot stand still. If you are providing services well, you are going to get clients demanding more of those services," he reasons. He is relieved that the deal has not led to a staff exodus. "They are all happy with it. That is partly because we got the culture right in the first place."

Just eight respondents in this year's survey indicate that they anticipate mergers or acquisitions with rival firms this year, although many more are non-committal. Others are relying on in-house expansion to fill out their regional coverage. Napier says GL Hearn has spotted a strategic gap in the Midlands, although it has no firm plans to close it just yet.

DPP is looking at branching out from its network of seven regional offices.

"We are considering our options for other locations and there is a strong possibility that we will expand," says Flack. Jacobs Babtie is targeting growth in the North West after moving into Cardiff in the past six months.

"We would benefit from having a planning presence in our Manchester office," says Smith.

RTPI student members and other recent graduates are being taken on in increasing numbers as a way of freeing up senior professionals for the most demanding projects. "We take on a significant number of graduates every year across all our offices and are also using university students on a part-time basis or during their holidays. It is a good way of finding people and boosting junior resources," says Bunting.

DPP takes an active stance in encouraging staff to join the RTPI as student members and has a couple of dozen on its books at the moment. "We tend to try to recruit RTPI-qualified staff who have mainstream planning skills but we have also taken on people from other disciplines who want to develop their talents," says Flack.

While planning has been a traditionally male-orientated environment, many consultancies report a more even gender split. At Bell Cornwell the company is nearly all female. "When I started, it was one of the only careers in local government where women could earn the same amount as men," recalls Saunders. "The situation is definitely changing. I find that a lot of women in planning are now coming through the ranks."

Strachan recollects a recent meeting "where there were just three guys out of 15 people". O'Rourke points out that one-third of his firm's planners are female. Crowdy adds: "CWHB used to be very male orientated but now it is more like half and half. We encourage diversity in our business so that our staff represent the clients we working for and the places in which we are working."

Bunting says that Drivers Jonas, where 40 per cent of the qualified planners are female, has always drawn a lot of women. Provision of continuing opportunities for women with families is key to staff retention, she feels: "It is up to the employer to maintain an environment to allow women to continue working should they want to, so they keep good employees."

For a full breakdown of the survey responses, see this week's Planning (11 November 2005).

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