Understanding Responses to a UK High-Voltage Powerline Proposal: The Role of Place And Project-Based Social Representations

  • Etienne Bailey University of Exeter
  • Patrick Devine-Wright University of Exeter
  • Susana Batel Instituto Universitário De Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Cis-IUL, Lisboa, Portugal
Keywords: power lines, NIMBYism, symbolic fit, social representations, focus groups interviews


In going beyond the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) concept, Devine-Wright (2009)

posited a place-based approach highlighting the role of social representations of place

for understanding responses to energy infrastructure projects. Existing studies (Devine-

Wright & Howes, 2010; Anderson, 2013) have investigated the ways in which

representations of diverse forms of place change are anchored and objectified

symbolically based on existing social representations of place. These studies have

shown that the degree of fit between representations of place and proposed place change

can be seen to inform community responses to different developments. There is

however, a dearth of research investigating the symbolic fit of power line projects

amongst existing representations of the English countryside, despite the fact that such

projects are both highly controversial and key to ensuring delivery of low-carbon energy

policy targets. This paper thus sought to explore social representations of a proposed

power line development in Southwest England and their symbolic fit with

representations of nearby countryside areas, given the increased deployment of lowcarbon

energy infrastructure in this locale. Five focus groups were conducted with

residents of a town in North Somerset, to highlight residents’ co-constructed place and

project-based social representations. Findings from thematic data analysis suggest that

those representing the nearby countryside as replete with existing grid infrastructure

objectified the power line proposal as an acceptable and ‘familiar’ form of place change.

Conversely, those representing the countryside as ‘natural’ tended to objectify the

proposal as industrialising this locale, objecting to it on this basis. This study reveals the

utility of adopting Social Representations Theory to understand responses to proposed

energy infrastructure developments given the UK low carbon transition, and suggests

that grid companies could enhance acceptance by seeking to minimise the ‘industrial’

nature of such projects.

Author Biographies

Etienne Bailey, University of Exeter

DR. ETIENNE BAILEY: I am interested in issues around social acceptance of energy

infrastructure projects. My postgraduate has explored contentious proposals to construct highvoltage

overhead power line connections in England and Norway. I am attempting to further

understandings of the motivations behind support, acceptance and opposition to the development

of electricity transmission infrastructure within a UK context. In particular, my PhD adopted a

place-based approach to understanding such responses, utilizing the concepts of place attachment

and place-based meanings.

Patrick Devine-Wright, University of Exeter

PROFESSOR PATRICK DEVINE-WRIGHT: Seeks to understand the symbolic and affective

dimensions of people-place relations, particularly concepts of place attachment and place

identity. Investigates social and psychological aspects of siting new energy infrastructure such as

wind farms and power lines, including 'NIMBYism’ and public engagement. Seeks to understand

the motivation for pro-environmental and pro-social actions, particularly conceptions of

citizenship applied to energy and environmental problems.

Susana Batel, Instituto Universitário De Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Cis-IUL, Lisboa, Portugal

DR. SUSANA BATEL is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at Cis-IUL, University

Institute of Lisbon. Her research has been looking at the socio-psychological processes associated

with knowledge construction and transformation, through an interdisciplinary and critical

oriented perspective, based on the Theory of Social Representations. She has been exploring this

specifically regarding public participation in environmental issues, place attachments and 

representations and people’s ideas and practices regarding renewable energy and associated

technologies. Her research interests also include current conceptions and analyses of collective

action within Social Psychology, and their relation with different democratic practices.