Community, the very idea!

Kevin Burchell, Senior Research Fellow at Policy Studies Institute, has recently published work examining the understandings of ‘community’ of participants in a demand-side community-energy project


Kevin Burchell

Although community action on energy is now championed by both government and grassroots actors, it has a more ambiguous place in social-science commentaries. While the strengths of community action are often said to lie in its collective, local and independent nature, evocations of power relations and conflict are also often present in social-science analyses of community-owned renewables schemes.

In this brief paper, published in People, Place and Policy, Burchell and his colleagues examine the meanings of community and community action from the perspective of participants in a demand-side community-energy project. Understanding these meanings – particularly the ways they might differ from those in mainstream discourses and in work on the supply-side – is an important issue for policy and practice.

Smart Communities was a demand-side, community-action project on energy-consumption reduction (2011-2013). The project was undertaken at Kingston University and was funded by the ESRC. Drawing on the principles of action research, the analysis is based upon 35 interviews with project participants and experiences during the project action.

In Smart Communities, some familiar ambiguities emerged around the collective connotations of community. However, the notions of a local and non-commercial project were widely valued by participants; in particular, these rendered the project more authentic and trustworthy. Particularly in the context of demand-side action in which widespread local participation is important, these findings suggest that there is value in policymakers and grassroots practitioners engaging with the nuanced reality of community and community action. In addition, the findings raise questions about the UK government’s vision for greater commercial collaboration in community energy, and the central role of the private sector in other energy demand reduction policies (such as the Green Deal and the Smart Meter roll-out).

You can read the paper here.