The Planner, By Tom Campbell, book review: A rake’s sketchy progress

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Hardly anybody has a good word to say for planning in London. The city is ugly and overcrowded, with dire infrastructure and depressing extremes of wealth and poverty. No wonder Londoners are so often angry.

But the truth is that without planners, those white-collar termites grinding away year after year at interminable strategies and regulations, the metropolis would be a much worse place to live in.

This is a view held firmly by James, the town planner of the title. James studied diligently at the London School of Economics before taking up his first post in Nottingham, a city where planning works relatively well. He has returned to the capital and a new role at Southwark council, but the move is not working out. His university friends are all far better off than him, thriving in banking, media, and law, and given to frequenting expensive restaurants while discoursing sagely on economic austerity. They have acquired expensive properties, too, while he’s stuck in a grungy flat share.

Disgusted by it all, he’s about to retreat back up North. Then Felix, a new-found acquaintance in advertising, points out that James might find the capital more fun if, for a change, he focuses on a development master plan for himself. There follows a kind of contemporary rake’s progress through private members’ clubs, hospitality suites, and other haunts of the urban elite. En route, James explores the world views offered up by Felix and his peers. They explain the ways in which their enviable lifestyles are supported by manipulation of markets and prestidigitation with brands, in contrast to the collective good upheld by the public sector and, latterly, by James.

Some of the novel does not work well. The supporting cast has little depth. Felix remains a cipher throughout and it is unclear why he would mentor James, or why James would want his mentoring. As for the delights that Felix offers up in Mephistophelian fashion, Campbell’s take on hedonism can seem a tad sketchy, despite (or should that be, perhaps, because of?) a former life as the Mayor of London’s cultural strategy manager.

No matter, because all this is to ignore The Planner’s strengths. Campbell’s congenial satire is often acutely observed and his morsels of pabulum are always palatable. More impressive still, he maintains our sympathies with James, despite his changing aspirations. Most importantly, Campbell has created his own strategic framework to achieve the key objective of commanding our sustained attention. He supplies numerous subsidiary cliff-hangers to buttress his main hook of whether James is to stay or go, so that the novel becomes a consistently enjoyable page-turner.

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