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Early Career Researcher Award commended 2015

Sponsored by Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Group




Dr Linda Fox-Rogers, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin

Informal Strategies of Power in the Local Planning System

This paper was co-authored with Dr Enda Murphy, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin


About the research

Previous research has examined inequalities in formal power and influence in planning policy and regulation, and how this reflects power in society, the ultimate question being 'who does planning serve?' This research examines the informal strategies or tactics that can be utilised by powerful or wealthy actors to further their own interests through the planning system.

The research consists of a series of interviews with 20 urban planners working across four planning authorities within the Greater Dublin Area. Ireland, and specifically the Dublin area, makes a good case study in this regard, given the unprecedented level of development activity before the financial crisis, coupled with growing concerns surrounding the level of transparency in the planning system and concerns about powerful interests circumventing the planning systems' formal processes.

The findings demonstrate that a 'shadow planning system' exists, which is adjacent to the official or formal planning system, and which can be accessed only by powerful economic interests. Powerful actors can get informal access to those with decision-making powers; as a result, certain applications receive a degree of implicit support before they reach the formal planning application process, but are then legitimised by it.

Part of the reason this happens is because of local authorities' reliance private development activity as a source of funding, infrastructure provision and job creation. Fierce competition for development projects with neighbouring local authorities is another factor. This places developers in a powerful position relative to local authority officers and the general public.

"[T]he results demonstrate that a shadow planning system exists adjacent to the 'official' planning system, which can be accessed only by powerful economic interests. Rather than relying solely on the formal mechanisms that are in place to provide an equally accessible, transparent and democratic system, powerful interests can sidestep these structures to further their own vested interests."

This research can be found here, from the journal Planning Theory, published by Sage. Our thanks to the journal and publishers for making this article free-to-access.

Implications for policy and practice

The findings suggest that, if we want a fair planning system, we need to be much more aware of how power is distributed in society, and that 'light touch' approaches that focus exclusively on community participation and deliberation need to be replaced with more radical solutions that consider the redistribution of economic power between different stakeholders.

Absent major economic change, small-scale, readily achievable measures could be put in place to help redress the inherent reliance of local authorities on development activity, for example redistributing wealth between local authorities via value capture arrangements, whereby the levies accruing from development activity are centralised nationally and then redistributed to local authorities on a pro rata basis. Planners also need to be aware of whose interests they may be serving, and the progressive roots of planning.

Judge's comment

"A really good case study of informal uses of networks to override formal processes …well located in a wealth of literature. …[G]ood stuff!"