The credit crunch has made its presence felt. Planning consultants are now less optimistic than at any time in the past decade about business prospects for the year ahead.
When Planning carried out its 12th annual survey of the sector in September, consultants felt that demand for their services would grow overall by around four per cent during 2008-09. But last month's financial shocks have persuaded many to revise even those modest estimates downwards.
In a straw poll of 20 experts from leading firms earlier this month, only four still regarded four per cent growth as a reasonable assumption. Seven saw some scope for growth at a still lower rate, four predicted a static market and five warned that demand would decline by as much as ten per cent.
These findings underline the impact of the downturn on planning practices. Just 12 months ago consultants were predicting that 2007-08 would see a 14 per cent increase in their fee income, although they now estimate that the growth actually achieved was around 11 per cent.
For individual sectors, energy, education, health and plan-making are the only areas where consultants see business growth holding up at anything like last year's rate. Consultants roughly doubled their takings in each of these sectors during 2007-08 compared with the previous year.
Housing is the area worst affected. In September, consultants were predicting an actual decline of six per cent in the current financial year. So far, subsequent government efforts to kick-start sales have done little to persuade them that a revival is on the cards any time soon.
Mixed-use projects, which typically feature a substantial proportion of new or regenerated homes, are also in the doldrums. The aggregate amounts earned by consultants from their involvement in housing, leisure and tourism, transport, telecommunications and regeneration strategies all decreased in the last financial year.
Yet the mood among consultancies is surprisingly buoyant as they seek to maintain and boost their market share. The average firm quoting a figure expects fee income to grow by 7.5 per cent in 2008-09. That may be down on last year's average of 12 per cent, but it shows that rumours of the sector's demise are greatly exaggerated.
The survey was carried out and responses analysed by Lars Jespersen of Camargue Group Ltd.