Community Connectedness and Decision Making: Investigating the role of community cohesion building in the delivery of GDF Community Partnerships


The University of Liverpool invites applications for a 4-year, fully funded PhD studentship. The studentship will investigate the role of community cohesion building in delivering Community Partnerships associated with Geological Disposal Facilities. 


The aim of Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) Community Partnerships is to share information, discuss concerns and find answers to questions that a community has about all aspects of the GDF siting process This might include the implications of hosting a GDF and how a community could benefit. The primary outputs from this studentship will expand our understanding of community composition and cohesion, and its importance in relationship building with potential Geological Disposal Facility sites.

The research will use a conceptual approach that considers a range of factors such as physical characteristics, socio-economic factors, digital connectivity and aspects of place attachment to better understand community cohesion. Using existing findings from recent research in West Cumbria, the studentship will build upon the transferability of understanding local characteristics which often can be place-specific and result from a community’s experiences of historic planning applications, such as those for energy infrastructure. The studentship will work with both communities of practice and of place, with a focus on small communities who are frequently perceived to be without power or voice in engagement processes. The output from the research will build on our existing knowledge and inform best practice in future engagement with Community Partnerships for GDF.

PhD Studentship

Based within the Department of Geography and Planning at The University of Liverpool, this PhD studentship aims to:

  • Bring a place-based dimension into practice. Recognising local distinctiveness and showing how this would be incorporated into a GDF project, driven by local values and perceptions.
  • Recognise the local history and attachments, to identify what is important to communities at a local level.
  • Understand community characteristics which might form barriers to effective engagement.
  • Gather knowledge on the history of engagement in the case study area(s) to understand the history of engagement with related projects.
  • Adapt engagement methods to suit local needs and build relationships based on trust.

The currently proposed sites for GDF across England have complex historical connections with industry, much of which has been contested in the past, and the legacy of industrial processes and spatial argumentation has resulted in local characteristics of mistrust, fear and suspicion resulting from poor consultation and a lack of co-production in public engagement.

This PhD proposal offers scope to build upon existing research which explored public disengagement from planning for major infrastructure and focused on communities in the former Districts of Allerdale and Copeland (Queen, 2022). That research found that West Cumbria is characterised by communities of practice and place and this project will benefit from the earlier findings by building upon existing knowledge and integrating the student into the community of practice surrounding the GDF. This will seek to inform a conceptual framework which will be transferable to the other GDF locations.

The existing GDF sites evidence communities of practice which have emerged from the nuclear industry in Copeland, Innovia in Allerdale and the manufacturing and engineering heritage of East Lindsey. Recent research suggests that these major industries have created new communities of work practices characterised by the durability of shared experience and attitudes which are reported to extend beyond a typical working life. These communities of practice frequently become the voice for the local communities by using local knowledge combined with embodied and institutionalised cultural capital, to challenge power relations in the field of community engagement. Local contestation and division around proposals for development such as GDF can arise from these different communities of place and practice. However other communities of interest exist and the research will engage with social networks, founded on common characteristics, to understand what brings them together and where they meet. A key task will then be to understand how all these groups of practice overlap and find common ground.

The project brief recognises that positive commitment from a willing community is a necessary condition for the construction and operation of the GDF and strong relationships of trust are needed across heterogeneous communities, where there is not necessarily a shared sense of belonging. This project will seek to define what underpins community cohesion and how constraints, such as social inequality, can be overcome. Social capital is a key factor in community engagement and cohesion which can strengthen communities of place to deal with conflicts or threats to that place, drawing upon place meaning and emotional attachment to their physical community. This incorporates trust building and, by bringing together an understanding of all of these different forms of capital, the place dimension and the economic dependency on industry, this PhD proposal seeks to understand the different ways in which communities of place strengthen their social bonds and choose to engage with, or disengage from, Community Partnerships for GDF.


The main objectives of the project are:

  • To define the meaning of community cohesion and develop an understanding of the complex relationships between economic and social capital, and place attachment to determine which aspects of community cohesion are critical to decision-making.
  • To understand public perceptions of GDF and examine the existing communities hosting Community Partnerships to assess the role of place specificity in engagement with GDF.
  • To consider how the delivery and efficacy of GDF Community Partnerships may be ensured within policy networks and frameworks, and to work with NWS and existing Community Partnerships at regional and national scales to disseminate findings and influence policy and practice.

Specific requirements

Applicants should include a statement of interest with their application.

The ideal candidate will:  

  • Have a Bachelor’s degree (2:1 or above) and a Master’s degree (Merit or above) in Planning, Human Geography or a related social science. 
  • Be available to do UK fieldwork, expected to take place in year two of the studentship. 
  • Be able to demonstrate an informed understanding of community cohesion.
  • Be familiar with qualitative research methods. Training will be provided but some prior knowledge or experience is desirable.
  • Have excellent communication skills.

Application Process

Candidates wishing to apply should complete the University of Liverpool application form [How to apply for a PhD - University of Liverpool] applying for a PhD in Geography and uploading: Degree Certificates & Transcripts, an up-to-date CV, two academic references and a Statement of Interest describing ideas they can contribute to the project. The Statement of Interest can be submitted in the Research Proposal section of the application form.


Open to UK applicants

Funding information

Funded studentship

The PhD studentship will be fully-funded through a bursary from Nuclear Waste Services and the University of Liverpool.

Funding includes fees, a stipend for 4 years, an allowance for field work and an additional allowance for a 3-month placement with the ACCESS Project at the University of Exeter. Applicants would not be expected to self-fund any aspects of the studentship.

Only UK applicants can apply.



Queen, C. (2022) Investigating public disengagement from planning for major infrastructure projects: A high voltage powerline case study, University of Exeter