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Tackling spatial inequality: The significance of effective sub-national governance structures to the success of the ‘levelling up’ agenda in England (RDF23/ABE/McGuinness)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Dr David McGuinness, Dr Seraphim Alvanides  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The UK has experienced decades of uneven social and economic development with resultant growth in spatial inequality across the country. In 2019 the Conservative Government sought to address this challenge by ‘levelling up’ across every part of the UK. Within academia ‘levelling up’ is a contested concept, depicted as a pragmatic policy response to a perceived ‘geography of discontent’ (McCann and Ortega-Argiles, 2021) within left-behind former industrial places.

Economically, the sub-national scale over the last decade have been dominated by two dominant economic discourses; austerity as a response to the global financial crash with consequent fiscal retrenchment in the public sector and a continuation of a neo-liberal strategy of agglomeration economies (Scott and Storper, 2015). Pursuing the ideology of agglomeration economies has led national government to prioritise the economic competitiveness of globally competitive (successful) city-regions. Which has generating challenges for places that struggle to compete, disadvantaged (left-behind) places (Rodriguez-Pose (2018)).

Equally, within the era of austerity, coherent sub-national governance structures in England have faltered, due to political tensions between localities and a lack of clarity about strategic sub-national priorities. Baker and Wong (2013) note an effective long-term solution to English sub-national governance has proved elusive due to the lack of ‘a one size fits all solution’. Nonetheless, Colenutt et al. (2021) identify the importance of cohesive sub-national governance structures, to develop an effective ‘levelling up’ agenda which enables left-behind places,  to engage with the major strategic dilemmas integral to governing, e.g., distribution of major housing/economic developments, response to climate change and co-ordination of significant infrastructure provision.

This research project aims to examine the concept of ‘levelling up’ within an English sub-national governance context, via the theoretical lens of historical institutionalism. This approach involves analysing the evolution of institutional governance structures to facilitate effective action to tackle spatial inequality. Consequently, the research will examine whether the ‘levelling up’ agenda has generated a critical juncture in the way spatial inequality is addressed in England. The successful candidate will map current and historical levels of inequality in relation to ‘levelling up’ initiatives and will analyse the effectiveness of existing sub-national governance structures in facilitating ‘levelling up’ policies.

The research will adopt an inductive approach to inquiry, utilising a mixed methods approach including primary data gathering via qualitative semi-structured interviews/focus groups with key policy stakeholders at national and sub-national scale in England. Existing statistical datasets will be used to evaluate the relative economic performance of left-behind places in England. The overarching goal of the research is to advance knowledge of how sub-national institutional governance structures impact on the effectiveness of policy initiatives designed to deal with spatial inequality – like the ‘levelling up’ agenda. This empirical approach will enable the research to diversify into an international academic context by generating comparative analysis with countries that posess more stable and robust institutional structures of governance.

The Departmental Research Theme/Group which this proposal aligns with is People and Place. Interested applicants should have a strong academic background in urban planning, governance or human geography.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Dr David McGuinness. For informal queries, please contact [Email Address Removed]. For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process please use the email form below to contact Admissions. 

Funding Information

Home and International students (inc. EU) are welcome to apply. The studentship is available to Home and International (including EU) students and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2022/23 full-time study this is £17,668 per year) and full tuition fees. Studentships are also available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £10,600 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities).  

Please also see further advice below of additional costs that may apply to international applicants.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if they are already a PhD holder or if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.  Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence, and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge https://www.gov.uk/healthcare-immigration-application
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to the information on https://www.gov.uk/student-visa. It is important that you read this information very carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Check what COVID-19 tests you need to take and the quarantine rules for travel to England https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-to-england-from-another-country-during-coronavirus-covid-19
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be borne by the university. Please see individual adverts for further details of the English Language requirements for the university you are applying to.

How to Apply

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see


For applications to be considered for interview, please include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words and the advert reference (e.g. RDF23/…).Deadline for applications: 27 January 2023

Start date of course: 1 October 2023 tbc


Recent publications by supervisors relevant to this project (optional)
Muldoon-Smith, K and McGuinness, D (2022) Tacit domains: the transference of practitioner know-how in contemporary English planning practice, Area, 54 (3), pp. 501-508
McGuinness, D., Greenhalgh, P and Grainger, P (2019) Does one size fit all? Place-neutral national planning policy in England and its impact on housing land supplies and local development plans in North East England, Local Economy, 33 (3), pp. 329-346
McGuinness, D. and Mawson, J. (2017) The rescaling of sub-national planning: Can localism resolve England’s spatial planning conundrum? Town Planning Review, 88 (3) pp. 282-303
McGuinness, D and Ludwig, C. (2017) Developing a neighbourhood plan: stories and lessons from ‘community-led’ planning, published in: Bradley Q, and Brownhill, S (eds.) (2017) Neighbourhood Planning and Localism: Power to the People? Policy Press: Bristol

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