Right to Decide

01/01/24 12:27

A few years ago, a fresh critique of the Town Planning system came from an unexpected direction.

You can’t do this; You can’t do that; You can’t go forwards; And you can’t go back.

The psychedelic rock band Hawkwind released the single, Right to Decide, in 1992. Mark Radcliffe played it a few times on the radio, but at first I couldn’t decipher the lyrics. A week or two later, I came across a snippet in one of the inkies – weekly music papers like Sounds or Melody Maker, which have long since disappeared.

Right to Decide is about a long-running dispute over an illegally-constructed building: householder Albert Dryden took on the Planning department in County Durham, but got nowhere with them. Songwriter Dave Brock’s lyrics speak to the constraints which are placed on individuals who want to build, but eventually have to bend or ignore the rules: Dryden felt so strongly that he took the law into his own hands, and the story came to a tragic end when a Planning officer visited site.

Brock’s analysis is correct. There’s a massive list of Can’t Do That’s in the Planning system. Feu splitting, building on the Greenbelt, ribbon development, restrictive zoning, drainage embargoes, and the concept of plot ratio are just some of them. The 21st century perception is that Planning has become an expensive handbrake on progress. Everyday folk are required to engage architects, sometimes Planning consultants and occasionally solicitors, just in order to build a house extension.

Besides the hassle and delay, the suspicion of some is that Planning fees are just another tax: a way for Councils to raise money, justify their existence and maintain a larger public sector than right-wing politicians would like. That’s become an attractive narrative for the tabloid press: why can’t we just build what we want on the land we own? It’s a theme I explored a few years ago when I wrote a feature about Judy Murray’s plans for Park of Keir.

Yet Hawkwind come to the subject from a diametrically opposite direction to property developers, right-wingers and celebrity tennis mums. The band formed in the hippie squats around London’s Ladbroke Grove, and their politics are anti-Establishment, pro-anarchist and far to the left of the angry letters-to-the-editor writers in the Tory press. In fact, Hawkwind and libertarian free marketeers seem strange bedfellows, until you realise that everything printed about the Planning system nowadays is negative.

Right to Decide was a departure for Hawkwind, a protest song rather than an exploration of inner space. In the Indie era of the early 1990’s, they seemed like an anachronism from a time before I was born, part of the ancient scaffolding of rock ‘n’ roll which included King Crimson, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Apparently, writing about music is as pointless as “dancing about architecture”; yet sometimes, it gives expression to people’s frustrations about how society is ordered, rather than just channeling teenage angst. At that point, it’s fair game to explore what the songwriter intended.

Meanwhile, developers feel projects are being delayed unjustifiably, when they have to appeal every other application to the Scottish Government’s Reporter. NIMBY’s feel their concerns are overridden, and local democracy is being trashed. Westminster feels that Planning is an impediment to meeting housebuilding targets – although perhaps the Planners are useful idiots in that regard, since they have become a scapegoat for Britain’s perennial issue of under-providing affordable housing.

Perhaps Right to Decide could become an anthem for the disaffected, from right-wing ideologues such as Michael Gove, to the anarchist squatters which Hawkwind once were.

Happy New Year, let’s hope that 2024 provides a solution to all our Planning problems.

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