A couple of weeks ago, I found out about the idea of the ‘happy path’, something used in the world of computer software testing.
The happy path follows the expected steps that a digital user takes, resulting in the desired ends. But, needless to say, the happy path does not duplicate real-world conditions. Many users don’t do what’s expected. This leads to unhappy paths, which often result in error messages.
Software developers are supposed to test for both types of path, and use their learning to eliminate unhappy paths, or reduce their impact on the user.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m increasingly struck by the number of the problematic situations I encounter in the course of my work which seem to have been created by an over-reliance on the happy path and an assumption that those involved will do the right thing. They usually uncover an absence of answers when an unhappy path is followed.
Here are three examples.
Voi scooter parking
I’m continuing to receive reports of inconsiderate parking of the scooters and bikes operated by Voi as part of a trial licensed by the Combined Authority.
Obviously under a ‘happy path’ scenario, these incidents would not be occurring. Every single user would take full responsibility for making sure that they parked in a way which does not inconvenience pedestrians, particularly those with visual impairments, limited mobility or parents with pushchairs.
But – equally obviously – that was never going to be the case.
Pavements are defined as part of the Highway and approval of scooter parking locations is therefore the responsibility of the County Council, as confirmed in correspondence from a City Council officer this week. I’m still not entirely clear on how that approval process works. What I do know is that the response from the local Voi manager to complaints indicates an attitude which is not going to restore order to our pavements any time soon.
I submitted this photo to him as an example of the challenges that a visually impaired resident faces in this neighbourhood:
His response was: “The photo would be classified as ‘Not ideal’ – it’s a subjective assessment but there looks to be >1.5m passing clearance in the photo hence we would take the approach to Educate, then Warn, then Fine. ‘Bad Parking’ Assessments are issued when it’s clear there is a total blocking of the footway or the scooter is completely blocked sideways.”
In other words, in order for any action to be taken, first a member of the public has to take the time and effort to report the problem to Voi. Then Voi will decide if its own private property is causing enough of an inconvenience on the public highway, before initiating any kind of a response.
That seems like a recipe for unhappy paths!
I will continue to advocate for the installation of marked parking bays or docking stations to remove the possibility of this kind of conflict – if necessary taking space from the carriageway to achieve this.
The operator of course is aiming to roll out a dense network of parking locations. If those commissioning the trial had been more realistic about the problems which were likely to occur, we wouldn’t be trying to negotiate and retrofit a solution to the parking problem now, even as the extent of Voi’s network increases week by week.
Marque public art
When The Marque flats on the corner of Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road were built, provision was made through a planning condition for the inclusion of a publicly accessible space on the ‘podium’ on the first floor. This would feature artwork which “invites residents, the local community and visitors into this new public space at the heart of the scheme”.
This ambition was, in my opinion, always fatally compromised by the conflict inherent in creating ‘public’ realm with ‘public’ art, inside what is an intrinsically private space, immediately adjacent to residents’ homes.
The planning condition requires access to the podium between the hours of 9am and 5pm on weekdays and 10am to 4pm at the weekend. But in practice the management company, and its staff who have to physically lock and unlock the gates each day, have been varying these hours. This is to meet their perception of the behaviour of visitors to the podium and the nuisance thereby caused to the residents who pay substantial sums to live there. At the moment, for example, the gates are locked between 1130am and 2pm every day explicitly to exclude students from the local sixth form college during their lunch break. The podium has also been used as shelter by street sleepers, a practice which again management is keen to clamp down on.
The inevitable gap between the happy path fiction (creating a ‘vibrant’ social space used by ‘aspirational’ people) and reality is beautifully illustrated here:
This is not just an abstract discussion about some pretty tiles on a wall. It is significant because the actions which the management company are taking, to protect what they see as their space from what they see as undesirable intrusion, unilaterally undermine the ‘deal’ which was struck when planning approval was granted.
The reduced hours are not only in breach of the planning condition, they diminish the public good (space + art) which the city was supposed to gain. But why were these inevitable conflicts about users and usage not envisaged from the outset? I am now trying to prompt a conversation between the management company and the City Council’s public art and planning enforcement teams about what can be done.
Permitted development and change of use
The third example relates to a real frustration with the planning system.
I have come across several cases where approvals granted under permitted development rights for garden outbuildings, ancillary to the main residence, are then let for separate occupancy (for example Airbnb use). The planning enforcement process does not seem well resourced to deal with complaints about this practice, which can cause significant upset and annoyance to neighbours, and also undermines belief in the efficacy and soundness of the planning system.
A variation on this theme is for an application to be submitted for a previously-approved standalone dwelling, with the applicant arguing that, given the principle of development in the location has been approved, there should no problem if the use to which the building is put is varied.
This second scenario is being played out at the moment on Almoners Avenue under planning reference 20/05147/FUL. In summary, a certificate of approval for permitted development (20/02503/CL2PD) was given for an annexe to the main house. This was swiftly followed by a subsequent application for a three bedroomed bungalow in the same location, with the logic being that a building of the same size would not cause any further detriment to neighbours. This application was turned down, but the applicants have now submitted an appeal against that decision, which has yet to be determined.
It seems ridiculous to me that anyone could in good faith argue that the use of the building would be immaterial to those in surrounding properties. However, some presumably expensive professional experts have submitted documents on behalf of the applicants asserting just that.
I hope the Planning Inspector considering the case will be not be led up the (unhappy) garden path.
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