Practising the blues

Blues artist Derek Kingaby played it straight down the line as a local government planner but he has doubts about the state of the profession, reports David Dewar.

For many district planning chiefs, retirement provides a cherished opportunity to sit back and take life easy after years at the coal face.

But Derek Kingaby has been busier than ever since standing down as head of planning and development at Havant Borough Council three years ago.

As well as setting up his own planning practice in the Hampshire town, Kingaby has also branched into the world of rock and roll with the Mustangs, in which he plays the harmonica. The five-strong band has been described variously in the music press as "high-octane blues with a modern twist", "foot-stomping blues" and "inhabiting an area somewhere between 60s Brit RnB and roughed-up electric country".

The Mustangs have produced three albums since forming in 2001 and their fourth, Rocking Horse, is imminent. They have established themselves on the south coast blues scene and are notching up album sales through the website, which has a special section dedicated to unsigned bands.

"On the basis of sales they pick their own top ten unsigned bands, and we were in that chart for about a year with our last CD," says Kingaby.

"They send us a cheque from the sales, which might be small beer but you do feel you are reaching out because it is a worldwide service."

Persuading radio stations to air the band's material is more difficult, he admits. "Most are playlisted. They are all closed and you just cannot get anything through. It is such a shame because everywhere there are lots of smaller groups who are trying and it seems a pity that the door is slammed shut in what is an era of totally manufactured bands and programmes like The X Factor and Pop Idol," he complains.

"It seems you can manufacture a band but it is more difficult for musically talented bands to move forward and get exposure. Sometimes you look at the quality of what they are packaging on the television and you think it is garbage compared to other bands. An awful lot of highly talented people are still not making it. It is interesting when you see a chink of light and you join the game of seeing how far you can go, which is probably absolutely nowhere. But it's fun."

The band's first two CDs consisted entirely of cover versions, but they quickly moved to writing their own material for their third album, 2003's Let It Roll. "I was fortunate to team up with a very talented group of guys who were able to produce their own material and they said: 'Come on Derek, you'd better write something.' With the abilities of the other members of the band, things got pulled together. I have penned probably six or seven numbers, which I am delighted about."

Kingaby started in planning at the London Borough of Ealing in the 1960s, where he worked in development control and forward planning. He was involved in various town centre improvement schemes including the revamp of Ealing Broadway. At the age of 27, with a wife and two young children, he decamped to the south coast when he was appointed head of forward planning at Havant.

"The big difference I found was that while some of the schemes in London were bigger and grander, they did not seem to have a sense of urgency," he recalls. "Being that much bigger, Ealing did not seem to have much of a hands-on approach, whereas the moment I came down here to a smaller authority, every member of the public was interested in what you were doing and wanted to make damn sure you were doing it right."

While he found Havant a good authority to work for, he feels that council planning as a whole started to run into fundamental problems with local government reorganisation in 1996. "In their strategic role the counties became afraid to do anything that would upset the public, and you had what we referred to as the banana policy - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone - emerging.

"What happened was that the county structure plan in some senses became a non-plan because it talked about building on existing settlements and implied that new settlements were bad news. The net result has been to undermine the whole process of planning. It could not take difficult decisions and could not plan ahead."

Kingaby also reflects on changes in the political climate. "Politicians have seized control in a much firmer way. The result was that heads rolled if you disagreed. There was a general sense that professional planners basically had to learn that whereas before honesty and being forthright were seen as worthwhile qualities, they were no longer qualities that were going to serve your best interests."

This climate has served to cement the inability of the planning system to take tough decisions, he argues. "The problem is that local politicians' objectives are nearly always short term and nearly always aimed at the electorate," he maintains. "That is the prevailing legacy of the way the system has changed. It seems that local and national politicians in the planning field are not prepared to make any difficult decisions. They will all put them off. That is no way forward and not what planning is all about."

Kingaby admits that he would not set out to go into planning now. "The creative side has been overwhelmed by the procedural aspects. Planning seems to have become about administering and driving through complex policy plans. It is very theoretical rather than practical," he laments. "It was very practical when I went into it and I loved that side of it."

So have feelings about trends in planning and regrets over poor planning decisions influenced the content of Kingaby's musical output? "No, there are no planning mentions," he laughs. "But the songs are a bit autobiographical.

The first one I wrote was No Time for the Blues. It was about the way I had lived my life, which had always been along straight lines. I came out of school, stuck my head down, got two professional qualifications at an early age, got married, had children, had a car, a house and all that.

"That was great, but I think there was almost a reaction to this and the straight lines that I had led my life along. The song is about the fact that this was the advice that I received, but that I am not sure whether it is right. I have found that you can take time with things and you can take time out to listen to the blues."


Age: 57.

Family: Divorced, with two grown-up daughters.

Education: Surveying degree, Hammersmith College of Art and Building;

diploma in town planning, Polytechnic of Central London.

Career: Planning assistant and group leader, special projects, London

Borough of Ealing, 1965-75; head of local plans, Havant Borough Council,

1975-96; head of planning and development, Havant Borough Council,

1996-2001; planning consultant, 2001 to date.

Interests: Football, squash, skiing, sunshine, supporting Arsenal

Football Club, writing songs, blues harmonica, family life.

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