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Agriculture, environmental protection and the Northern Ireland planning system

School of Natural and Built Environment | PHD

Applications are now CLOSED
Reference Number
Application Deadline
1 May 2024
Start Date
1 October 2024


Agricultural pollution is a substantial environmental challenge for Northern Ireland with significant impacts on water quality, biodiversity, and human health. The severity of this issue been highlighted by a major algae bloom in Lough Neagh and other waterways, which is symptomatic of much wider ecosystem breakdown in rural parts of NI. There are long-standing critiques of environmental governance in Northern Ireland, and a key instrument for preventing such environmental degradation should be the planning system. While the planning system does have statutory basis and strategic objectives to protect the environment and prevent pollution (e.g. in the Planning Act 2022 and as a strategic objective in the Strategic Planning Policy Statement, 2015) it has been continually and officially sanctioned as failing in many of its functions, including environmental protection (such as in reports from the NI Audit Office and the NI Assembly Public Accounts Committee). There is no evidence that the current Interim NI Planning Commission will be tackling this specific topic, yet urgent actions through planning reform are clearly urgently needed. This project is being undertaken with the ENSGOV Research Group in the School of Natural and Built Environment at QUB, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth (NI), who will be providing support through additional travel expenses, skills training, data access and a secondment at their office in Belfast. The supervisors are Prof Geraint Ellis (QUB), Dr Wesley Flannery (QUB) and James Orr, the Director of Friends of the Earth (NI), and an Honorary Professor at QUB. We are seeking to recruit a well-motivated candidate with a undergraduate or Masters qualification from a range of disciplines (including planning, politics, geography or environmental studies) who would like to undertaken this important project for addressing a key environmental challenge for Northern Ireland.

The aim of this research project is to investigate the capacity of the Northern Ireland planning system to prevent agricultural pollution in Northern Ireland, in order to identify key actions on agricultural pollution that can be introduced as part of the ongoing process of planning reform. It will do this by pursuing the following objectives to:

• Understand the scales and current sources of agricultural pollution in Northern Ireland, using existing secondary sources, and analyzing the developments and land uses that contribute to this.
• Develop a system map of governance and decision making of rural land use, and identify key actors involved in this.
• Through stakeholder engagement and targeted case studies, identify key opportunities to strengthen pollution prevention through planning measures.
• Drawing on this evidence base and comparative analysis with analogous planning systems, identify key actions to be taken forward in planning reform to mitigate agricultural pollution.

We anticipate that the research will employ a mixed-methods approach, combining quantitative data analysis with qualitative interviews and case studies, which could involve:

• A literature review to synthesize knowledge of pathways of agricultural pollution with environmental policy and planning instruments.
• Scoping interviews with key informants to identify current problemizations and narratives, sources of data and identify key stakeholders.
• Using existing data sources to spatially map levels of agricultural pollution and the associations with a range of land uses and rural economic activity.
• System mapping of key actors and governance regimes
• Using mixed methods (interviews, site visits, process analysis) undertake up to six place-based case studies of where the planning system appears to have failed adequately prevent agricultural pollution, and identify opportunities for system improvement.
• Engage policy makers and key stakeholders in a process of knowledge exchange involving the research findings.

Research Proposal

Please note that applicants are not required to upload a research proposal as part of the application. Instead, interested candidates should upload a copy of their CV and a covering letter outlining their motivation to undertake a PhD on this theme, describing any relevant experience and outline how they would elaborate on the research summary provided above.

Application Procedure

• To apply, visit (link to the QUB Direct Application Portal)
• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in ‘Environmental Planning’ at Queen's University Belfast, School of Natural and Built Environment.
• State name of lead supervisor on application form ‘Prof Geraint Ellis’.
• State the intended SOURCE OF FUNDING on your application as 'QUB Collaborative studentship award’.
• Include CV and a covering letter outlining your motivation to undertake a PhD on this theme, describing any relevant experience and outline how you would elaborate on the research summary provided above.

Funding Information

This funded studentship is open to UK candidates. The value of an award includes the cost of approved fees as well as maintenance support (stipend). As an indicator, the level for 2023/2024 is currently £18,622.

All students are subject to the normal Department for the Economy NI eligibility criteria. Please also note that this opportunities are for Home based Students and are not open to international students due to the levels of international fees. Candidates who do not satisfy the 3 years ordinary residency criteria (in NI/UK or Islands) but who meet the other criteria would be eligible for a Fee Award. For further details please refer to the "Eligibility" section of the DFE PG Studentship Terms and Conditions at

Candidates should hold the minimum of a strong upper second class (2.1) honours degree (completed or in the final stages of completion), with a Masters qualification preferred, in a relevant discipline which may include planning, politics, geography or environmental studies.

Project Summary

Prof Geraint Ellis

Research Profile

Mode of Study

Full-time: 3 years

Funding Body
QUB Collaborative studentship award
Apply now Register your interest

Planning overview

The discipline of Planning is located in the School of Natural and Built Environment. In recent years the performance of the discipline has been quite exceptional in a range of surveys, e.g. National Student Survey, Times Higher Education Survey and Guardian League Table. Given this, Planning at Queen’s is very highly ranked within the UK's Russell Group Universities.

Our research programme is based on the concept of spatial planning and whilst our empirical work is partly grounded in the region, it is built on strong international, interdisciplinary and theoretical references. Our particular strength is the staff team who have built a track record in scholarly and applied research and a wide-ranging portfolio of publications, research grants and Doctoral studentships. Planning academics have built an international reputation and attracted a stream of major research funding linked to our main areas. We value the connection between our research and teaching programmes and the application of our empirical work in a learning environment, and continues to innovate and develop teaching programmes to reflect a rapidly changing market place, problem and policy context and changes in professional standards.

Mode of study / duration
Registration is on a full-time or part-time basis, under the direction of a supervisory team appointed by the University. You will be expected to submit your thesis at the end of three years of full-time registration for PhD, or two years for MPhil (or part-time equivalent).

Planning Highlights
Global Opportunities
  • The discipline has an impressive track record in winning major UK and international funding from bodies including INNOVATE UK, RCUK, EU, GRCF in areas from core ‘science’ research to public engagements, training, capacity building and digital modelling.
Student Experience
  • Postgraduates form an intrinsic part of our research community and are actively involved in the School's cross-disciplinary Research Groups. Visit our School website and read about the exciting research projects being undertaken by our staff and by our PhD students.
  • In addition to support from expert staff in Planning, the University’s flagship Graduate School provides postgraduate students with a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary hub to support their personal and professional development.

    QUB’s Researcher Plus scheme provides PhD students with an opportunity to develop skills which are transferable beyond their research degrees, and the Researcher Plus award provides them with official recognition for the skills acquired in addition to their research.
Key Facts

Planning at Queen’s is ranked joint 3rd in the UK for Research Intensity (Complete University Guide, 2022)

  • In terms of research performance, Queen’s is ranked 12th in the UK for Architecture, Built Environment and Planning (REF 2021/Times Higher Education).

Course content

Research Information

Associated Research
Staff in Planning have built a strong postgraduate group which is effectively integrated into our research projects, teaching and School activities. We offer dedicated support and mentoring within the School to complement training available from the wider University. Moreover, we have the staff expertise within Planning and our School to offer comprehensive support to postgraduate students across a range of projects in spatial planning.
Current projects involve a range of studies on contested spaces that build on our strong international research partnerships in North America, South Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The global challenge of development is also reflected in projects on climate change, marine spatial planning and urban design.
We encourage and support fieldwork in international settings and current students have conducted their empirical studies in Bangladesh, Australia and the USA.

Career Prospects

Many of our PhD graduates have moved into academic and research roles in Higher Education while others go on to play leading roles in educational practice, the public sector or within NGO’s. Queen's postgraduates reap exceptional benefits. Unique initiatives, such as Degree Plus and Researcher Plus bolster our commitment to employability. For further information on career opportunities at PhD level please contact the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences Student Recruitment Team on Our advisors - in consultation with the School - will be happy to provide further information on your research area, possible career prospects and your research application.

People teaching you

Dr Cristian Silva
Natural and Built Environment

Dr Philip Boland
Natural and Built Environment

Dr Richard Waldron
Natural and Built Environment

Dr Sara Ferguson
Research Fellow
Natural and Built Environment

Dr Urmi Sengupta
Natural and Built Environment

Dr Wesley Flannery
Natural and Built Environment

Professor Brendan Murtagh
Natural and Built Environment

Professor Geraint Ellis
Natural and Built Environment

Learning Outcomes
A research degree offers students an opportunity to foster their capacity for independent research and critical thought. It also allows students to explore an area of interest and so understand and solve theoretical and practical problems within the field.

Undertaking a research degree also enhances a student’s written and oral communication skills, and a PhD is almost always a formal requirement for an academic post.
Course structure
You will carry out original research under the guidance of your supervisory team. There is no specific course content as such.

This independent research is complemented by postgraduate skills training organised by Queen’s Graduate School, and other internal and external training courses organised through your supervisor.

You will normally register, in the first instance, as an ‘undifferentiated PhD student’ which means that you have satisfied staff that you are capable of undertaking a research degree. The decision as to whether you should undertake an MPhil or a PhD is delayed until you have completed ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation takes place about 9-12 months after registration for full time students and about 18-30 months for part time students: You are normally asked to submit work to a panel of up two academics and this is followed up with a formal meeting with the ‘Differentiation Panel’. The Panel then make a judgement about your capacity to continue with your study. Sometimes students are advised to revise their research objectives or to consider submitting their work for an MPhil qualification rather than a doctoral qualification.

To complete with a doctoral qualification you will be required to submit a thesis of no more than 80,000 words and you will be required to attend a viva voce [oral examination] with an external and internal examiner to defend your thesis.

A PhD programme runs for 3-4 years full-time or 6-8 years part-time. Students can apply for a writing up year should it be required.

The PhD is open to both full and part time candidates and is often a useful preparation for a career within academia or consultancy.

Full time students are often attracted to research degree programmes because they offer an opportunity to pursue in some depth an area of academic interest.

The part time route is a suitable option for those unable to study for a PhD full time. This may be due to family commitments or those already in employment. On the former, studying part time for a PhD can be very accommodating in juggling different responsibilities. On the latter, part time candidates often choose to research an area that is related to their professional responsibilities.

If you meet the Entry Requirements, the next step is to check whether we can supervise research in your chosen area. We only take students to whom we can offer expert research supervision from one of our academic staff. Therefore, your research question needs to engage with the research interests of one of our staff.

Application Process
Please review the eligibility criteria on the webpages. If you believe that you meet these criteria then follow the steps below:

Select ONE potential supervisor from our list of Academic Staff ( and send an email containing:

a brief CV (1-2 pages maximum)
a concise statement that you are interested in studying for a PhD, stating when you would start, and how you would plan to fund the research
a brief statement of the research question or interest, and how you think the question could be investigated

Our academic staff welcome approaches from prospective students; staff can liaise with applicants to develop a research proposal of mutual interest. The potential supervisor should get back to you within a couple of weeks. They may invite you to meet with them or they may invite you to apply formally.

If you have difficulty identifying or contacting an appropriate supervisor, please contact Catherine Boone (email: who will be happy to help.

For part-time study – the closing date for this option is 31st August each year.

For full-time study (self-funding) – for those full time candidates who do not wish to compete for a studentship or who are not eligible to compete for a studentship the closing date is 31st August each year.

For full-time study and application for a studentship/award; please be aware that awards are only available to full time students. Candidates wishing to apply for studentships available within the School must apply for full-time study at the same time. Available studentships and closing dates are detailed on the School's studentships web page:

Assessment processes for a research degree differ from taught degrees. Students will be expected to present drafts of their work at regular intervals to their supervisor who will provide written and oral feedback; a formal assessment process takes place annually.

This Annual Progress Review requires students to present their work in writing and orally to a panel of academics from within the School. Successful completion of this process will allow students to register for the next academic year.

The final assessment of the doctoral degree is both oral and written. Students will submit their thesis to an internal and external examining team who will review the written thesis before inviting the student to orally defend their work at a Viva Voce.


Supervisors will offer feedback on draft work at regular intervals throughout the period of registration on the degree.

Entrance requirements

The minimum academic requirement for admission to a research degree programme is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI HE provider, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University. Further information can be obtained by contacting the School.

International Students

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country.

English Language Requirements

Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.5, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or equivalent qualification acceptable to the University is required (*taken within the last 2 years).

International students wishing to apply to Queen's University Belfast (and for whom English is not their first language), must be able to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to benefit fully from their course of study or research. Non-EEA nationals must also satisfy UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) immigration requirements for English language for visa purposes.

For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see:

If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) 1 TBC
Republic of Ireland (ROI) 2 TBC
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) 1 TBC
EU Other 3 £20,500
International £20,500

1 EU citizens in the EU Settlement Scheme, with settled or pre-settled status, are expected to be charged the NI or GB tuition fee based on where they are ordinarily resident, however this is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly Student Fees Regulations. Students who are ROI nationals resident in GB are expected to be charged the GB fee, however this is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly student fees Regulations.

2 It is expected that EU students who are ROI nationals resident in ROI will be eligible for NI tuition fees. The tuition fee set out above is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly student fees Regulations.

3 EU Other students (excludes Republic of Ireland nationals living in GB, NI or ROI) are charged tuition fees in line with international fees.

All tuition fees quoted are for the academic year 2021-22, and relate to a single year of study unless stated otherwise. Tuition fees will be subject to an annual inflationary increase, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

More information on postgraduate tuition fees.

Planning costs

There are no specific additional course costs associated with this programme.

Additional course costs

All Students

Depending on the programme of study, there may also be other extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees, which students will need to consider when planning their studies . Students can borrow books and access online learning resources from any Queen's library. If students wish to purchase recommended texts, rather than borrow them from the University Library, prices per text can range from £30 to £100. Students should also budget between £30 to £100 per year for photocopying, memory sticks and printing charges. Students may wish to consider purchasing an electronic device; costs will vary depending on the specification of the model chosen. There are also additional charges for graduation ceremonies, and library fines. In undertaking a research project students may incur costs associated with transport and/or materials, and there will also be additional costs for printing and binding the thesis. There may also be individually tailored research project expenses and students should consult directly with the School for further information.

Bench fees

Some research programmes incur an additional annual charge on top of the tuition fees, often referred to as a bench fee. Bench fees are charged when a programme (or a specific project) incurs extra costs such as those involved with specialist laboratory or field work. If you are required to pay bench fees they will be detailed on your offer letter. If you have any questions about Bench Fees these should be raised with your School at the application stage. Please note that, if you are being funded you will need to ensure your sponsor is aware of and has agreed to fund these additional costs before accepting your place.

How do I fund my study?

1.PhD Opportunities

Find PhD opportunities and funded studentships by subject area.

2.Funded Doctoral Training Programmes

We offer numerous opportunities for funded doctoral study in a world-class research environment. Our centres and partnerships, aim to seek out and nurture outstanding postgraduate research students, and provide targeted training and skills development.

3.PhD loans

The Government offers doctoral loans of up to £26,445 for PhDs and equivalent postgraduate research programmes for English- or Welsh-resident UK and EU students.

4.International Scholarships

Information on Postgraduate Research scholarships for international students.

Funding and Scholarships

The Funding & Scholarship Finder helps prospective and current students find funding to help cover costs towards a whole range of study related expenses.

How to Apply

Apply using our online Postgraduate Applications Portal and follow the step-by-step instructions on how to apply.

Find a supervisor

If you're interested in a particular project, we suggest you contact the relevant academic before you apply, to introduce yourself and ask questions.

To find a potential supervisor aligned with your area of interest, or if you are unsure of who to contact, look through the staff profiles linked here.

You might be asked to provide a short outline of your proposal to help us identify potential supervisors.

Download Postgraduate Prospectus