Gustave Flaubert once said “What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright” - following that ethos as we cosied up in front of the fire over Christmas, we both read The Planner, a novel by Tom Campbell that tells the story of a young town planner working for a London Borough Council. We were excited by the prospect of a novel in which a planner is not only the central character but also in which he, and the planning system more generally, may not be portrayed as being entirely corrupt (as they often are when they play cameo roles in novels). And so, as we look ahead to what 2020 might bring in the world of town planning for us, we thought we’d share our reflections on Tom Campbell’s depiction of our profession.
Very briefly, the planner of the title is James Crawley who, at the start of the novel at least, believes in planning, a profession in which he deals with “…real and substantial things…” and in which “We do things in order to make everyone’s lives better. Better for everyone…”. By all accounts James is good at his job; he is described as diligent, respected by colleagues, and performing well in team meetings, with a knack for learning facts and remembering things in the right order. Yet James starts to question how relevant these skills are in the modern world.
In comparison, his university friends have developed different skills, which seem to allow them to live very different lives to him – more affluent, more apparently successful, and more at home in the city about which James can recite endless facts on matters such as traffic movements and affordable housing requirements, but of which he actually has very little lived experience. Then James meets Felix and embarks on a plan to immerse himself in all that London has to offer; a personal masterplan to match that of his profession.
As we follow both James’s personal and professional lives, the novel accurately describes both the planning system and life in local government. It recognises the complexities of planning, its linkages with other disciplines, timescales involved (“In my sector…Nothing has ever happened in two months”), the challenges of delivering infrastructure and securing investment to deliver development on the ground, the constant pressures on local government officers, and continuous restructuring and the impact that can have on individuals committed to a lifetime of public service. For example, James attends a public consultation event which is evocative of many events that we have attended in real life (“we spend most of our time talking to people who don’t like us”), while the analysis of how planners are perceived by others is also very relatable (“Up and down the country they were stopping people from turning their garden sheds into summerhouses and installing porches in conservation areas. And people hated them for it… And when they did allow people to do things, if they let someone build a mosque or a factory or a wind farm, well then everyone else hated them instead”).
Throughout the book, there are many references to the importance of planning, but it doesn’t always get painted in a very good light. At its best, planning should be transformative, and a tool to create better, healthier and happier places. However, James is a self-described technocrat, and planning is accordingly also portrayed in a very technocratic way, in which human voices, experiences and aspirations are given little weight, leading to a disconnect between the planner’s plans and the reality of life in the cities to which the plan relates. James’s own masterplan for the regeneration of a shopping centre is a great example of that, this being represented by a computer-generated image, which no one believes will actually look like it does on the poster in real life.
The disconnect is also reflected at the start of each chapter, each of which opens with a quote from the London Plan, but with those quotes sometimes bearing little connection to the content of the chapter, or to the London described in it. More fundamentally, James himself is a representation of that disconnect, with his technocratic understanding of the city being at odds with others’ experiences of it. Unfortunately though, his plan to get to know the city ultimately amounts to little more than a plan to further escape the realities of daily life, with private clubs, drugs and copious amounts of alcohol taking the place of any genuine self-reflection or self-improvement.
In doing this, the book’s biggest literary strength also makes it hard to enjoy at times in that, reflecting the disconnect that James feels from the people around him, the key characters are not generally likeable. Although James is at times portrayed as kind and well-meaning, and committed to local government and to helping people, particularly in the early chapters, his belief in technical solutions, lack of self-awareness and his quest for a new world view mean that it is difficult to maintain sympathy with him. That is particularly so given his conclusion towards the end of the book that people are hopeless, no good at making decisions that would maximise the wellbeing of themselves or those around them, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to do so. However, given how unlikeable most of the characters are (Felix is essentially a hedonistic narcissist whilst James’s university friends don’t seem to have anything friendly about them), and some of the terrible decisions they make, there are times when you can’t help but sympathise with James’s viewpoint here! The only exception is Rachel, one of James’s planning colleagues whose “…strengths were immense and well known…”, who retains her integrity throughout the book (but perhaps we would say that about a planner!).
Stepping back from the novel however, we don’t ascribe to many of James’s views of the planning system, or of people’s role in this. Rather, we see both people and planning in a far more positive light and as forces for positive change: as Yvonne Rydin put it in The purpose of planning: Creating sustainable towns and cities, planning is not only a technical process, it is a “means by which society collectively decides what urban change should be like and tries to achieve that vision by a mix of means”. In other words, planning is something that belongs to all of us, not just ‘the planner’, and we look forward to working with others this year to deliver great places.
Meanwhile, if you want to find out the fate of a planner who wants something different (and he thinks more) out of life, then The Planner tells at least one version of that story.
And, to find out how we can help with any aspect of the planning process, please visit our website or email us at email@example.com. Or, if you would like to see our other blogs or sign up for email updates, please click here.
Thanks for reading!
Pippa and Maggie