School of Natural and Built Environment

Devolution and Democratisation: A Vehicle for Informal Planning?

Research Theme: Cities, Communities and Contested Urbanism
Supervisors: Dr. Linda Fox-Rogers ( ) and Dr. Phil Boland (

State powers are increasingly being reworked both vertically and horizontally under interrelated processes of neoliberalisation and devolution, especially in countries like the UK where devolutionary processes have been particularly pronounced (Davoudi and Madanipour, 2015).  Empirical enquires show that these new power dynamics have fostered the emergence of ‘soft spaces’ which are being used to devise more innovative spatial strategies that work around the constraints typically associated with the formal scales of planning, often in the pursuit of neoliberal visions of economic development (Olesen, 2012; Allmendinger et al, 2015). This PhD seeks to build upon and extend this field of research by examining how the shift from government to governance, coupled with downward transfers of power, have created opportunities for various actors to bypass the formal structures of planning in what authors such as Fox-Rogers and Murphy (2015) have dubbed a ‘shadow planning system’. In doing so, this PhD not only focuses on the creation of informal spatial strategies, but examines a broader suite of planning practices which can help circumvent the planning system’s statutory procedures. The core objective of the research is to examine the extent to which the reworking of state powers vertically and horizontally gives rise to informal planning practices, and to whose benefit this ultimately serves. Key questions underpinning the research include: What types of informal planning practices exist outside of the planning system’s formal structures?; Does the planning system provide a degree of legitimacy for more informal practices?; Do informal planning practices become institutionalised over time?; To what extent does informal planning support a neoliberal agenda? Can informal planning be harnessed by marginalised groups to deliver better planning outcomes?

Reflecting the nature of the research questions posed, a qualitative methodology will be employed. Following the convention of Fox-Rogers and Murphy (2015) stakeholder interviews will be conducted to unearth the hidden practices that are used to by-pass the planning system’s formal legal and administrative procedures. The research will focus on Northern Ireland given scale of devolution which has taken place in this jurisdiction, not least the planning system where planning powers have recently been transferred to local councils for the first time in over 40 years. This is an opportune moment in real time to capture and analyse the variable role of ‘soft spaces’ in planning in a devolved but also contested part of the UK.  This PhD will contribute both to planning theory by extending the ‘soft space’ literature and feeding into academic debates on devolution, state rescaling, and the neoliberalisation of planning. In practical terms, the research can offer guidance to policymakers to help curb informal planning practices that are potentially undermining the workings of the statutory planning system.

How to Apply