Sunday, November 23, 2014

The building boom.


All of the construction work that is going on in the local area – the former LINPAC factory site in Slade Green, which will have 350 new homes built on it; the Erith Park development with around 700 dwellings, the demolition of the old Bexley College site in Tower Road for further housing, and the Erith Quarry site with a proposed 600 larger houses on it - the artists impression above shows how the primary school which forms an integral part of the development will look when viewed from Fraser Road - click on the picture for a larger view. These developments will all be significant employers of construction staff. When on top of this one takes into consideration the aforementioned Paramount Theme Park at Swanscombe, where building is scheduled to get under way early next year, there is going to be a lot of work for anyone employed in a building trade. In fact a recent report jointly published by consultants KPMG and the London Chamber of Commerce, found that approximately 605,000 skilled workers will be needed on building sites in London and the South East region by April 2015. The figures include 50,000 construction managers, 66,000 carpenters, 41,000 plumbers and 40,000 electricians, plus many other ancillary trades.  There is a skills shortage meaning that some of these roles may well go unfilled. Many older construction workers were forced to leave the industry in the recession, and do not appear to be returning now that the market has picked up – around 400,000 were laid off during the recession, and the business is now feeling the pain. The construction industry requires 29,000 newly qualified workers each year up to 2017, but less than half that number are currently being trained. The shortage of qualified and experienced construction staff has caused the wage bill to skyrocket. The London Evening Standard reported last week that a top bricklayer can earn around £100,000 a year, whilst carpenters are now charging £200 per eight hour shift. Average wages for construction workers in London and the South East have increased between ten and twenty percent in the last year, whilst average wages for general workers have only gone up by a tiny one percent. The message would seem to be that if you want a good income and are not happy with your current job, you should consider retraining as a construction worker. Ironically one of the biggest centres for construction training is actually located in Erith – The National Construction College South is situated in Manor Road. It is a large warehouse shaped building almost opposite the Erith Construction depot. The college building contains a large covered open space where the students learn the practical skills of the construction trade – they actually build houses inside the warehouse from scratch – they fit windows, install wiring and plumbing and once the house is complete, they then learn the techniques of demolition as they pull it down. The National Construction College South is one of those institutions that even many locals don't know exist, though it has been on Manor Road for many years. More on regional construction projects later.

The current system of paying a toll via a booth at the Dartford River Crossing is about to change; as from November the 30th, drivers will no longer have to stop to pay the toll. Instead they will be able to use a pre-paid system called Dart Charge. It is reported that since the Dart Charge website went live on the 5th November, an average of 2,200 drivers per hour have been pre – registering for an account. The system uses number plate recognition software to identify specific vehicles and when they use the crossing. The advantage is that drivers will no longer have to queue to pay the toll fee, and it is hoped that this will reduce congestion, which historically has always been a significant problem. Fleet operators and haulage firms have been keen on the change, and have been registering their corporate membership of Dart Charge well in advance of the “go live” date. To date over one hundred large haulage firms with over 22,000 trucks have pre – registered, and interest has been keen from overseas haulage organisations as well. This is all well and good, and any efforts to speed up traffic passing through the tunnels and over the bridge is to be welcomed – the current arrangement causes a bottleneck that all too often brings M25 traffic to a crawl, if not a halt. The problem is not so much with the new Dart Charge system, as with the method of enforcement via number plate recognition – there is already a serious problem around the country with false or stolen vehicle number plates in use by crooks trying to avoid both toll charges and fines for other traffic offences. I know for a fact that in the local area vehicles are illegally on the roads with suspect plates. Only a while ago I saw three young boys of around twelve or thirteen years of age, all crammed onto one asthmatic scooter, riding along the pavement in Erith as though it was a normal thing to do (which by the look of them, it probably was). I called my local Police contact and gave him the scooter registration details. He checked the computer, and said “that’s strange – it’s down here as a silver Bedford van!” The scooter had a false plate – probably why the kids were so unconcerned about being seen on it. This can be multiplied a hundredfold when businesses sense that they can save money by avoiding the NPR cameras. Overheads such as toll charges are always unpopular with businesses, and there are a minority of unscrupulous operators who will always seek ways around them, legal or not. This form of identity theft is becoming increasingly common, and in many cases it becomes the responsibility of the unwitting person who has had their vehicle ID cloned to prove their innocence, rather than the other way around. Unless some examples are made when perpetrators are actually caught in the act, I foresee this becoming a problem which will only increase over time. What do you think? Will the undoubted increase in traffic throughput be worth a strong likelihood in the level of identity theft? I must admit that personally I am ambivalent, but realise that some readers may hold strong opinions on the subject.

The campaign to Save Belvedere Splash Park continues; the organisers are strongly encouraging members of the campaign to write to their ward Councillors to complain, as it would appear that some Councillors have been gravely misinformed as to the reasons for the Splash Park closure, and have been duped into believing it is purely for health and safety reasons. There is evidence to suggest that Bexley Council have a plan (or are at the very least considering) relocating the current children's play area in the main "swings park" situated at the junction of Woolwich and Albert Road in Upper Belvedere, across the road and into the site currently occupied by the Splash Park. Along with closing the adjacent Belvedere Library, this would free up a large area of land, which the council could then sell off to property developers in order to build yet more shoe box sized flats. Not only would the money grabbing council make a packet out of the land sale, but they would get a sizable increase in council tax income from the site. If this is indeed potentially on the cards, it would once again underline the fact that Bexley Council don't give a stuff for residents in the North of the Borough, as most of their mandate comes from the wealthy and council pampered South. Nothing this morally bankrupt Council plans to do would surprise me any more.


Local news sources, including but not limited to the News Shopper have been reporting that the plans for the Swanscombe based Paramount theme park have been put on public display for residents to examine. The only trouble is the nearest place where the plans have been on show was Dartford FC football ground last Sunday. No consultation or information is being carried out in Slade Green, Erith, Belvedere or Thamesmead, even though it is highly likely that a substantial number of staff for the forthcoming park will live in the local area; the Paramount adventure park is planned to cover forty five Hectares and cost in excess of £2 billion. There are going to be twelve major rides, said to be of world class standard, along with Europe’s largest indoor water park, a total of eleven thousand covers in a number of different restaurants as well as a twenty square Kilometre indoor events space designed to rival the O2 Arena. There will be car parking for ten thousand visitors and four thousand staff – though many will be encouraged to visit via train from the nearby Ebbsfleet station. There are even rather optimistic ideas of getting at least five percent of the visitors to the site by ferry boat from London, further up the River Thames. Personally I think the journey time from around London Bridge / Waterloo to Swanscombe would be too long to be attractive to very many people. The developers have been a little short sighted in not having an information open day in the local area; this especially rings true when one considers that an open day was held in Grays, Essex on the opposite side of the river. I concede that if the promised additional river crossings do appear, the distinction between North Kent and South Essex will become increasingly blurred due to the effective removal of the Thames as a historic barrier. Nevertheless, the juncture of North West Kent and South East London is very likely to be the home of many who will both work in the park, and those who will be potential visitors – a bit more consideration would have been welcome. To be honest it is symptomatic of the attitude to Slade Green, Erith , Belvedere and Thamesmead that is shown by both local and national government. An independent observer reported to me that when Boris Johnson opened Bexley College recently, he apparently made an off – the – cuff remark that he did not know the area existed until his visit – something I find hard to believe since I saw him on a walkabout in Bexleyheath Broadway a couple of years ago – unless Boris has a particularly selective memory, which for a career politician would be no great surprise at all. Nevertheless, the North of the London Borough of Bexley has historically had a poor deal when it comes to investment, infrastructure and attention. It is heartening to see the money that is currently being invested locally by private enterprise – the Erith Park development, the LINPAC site in Slade Green, the redevelopment of the old Bexley College site in Tower Road (see the photo above - click on it for a larger view), and the proposed Erith Quarry development are all signs that whilst politicians have little faith in the area, hard-nosed business people do. Incidentally I was talking to a very senior person within the Bexley Council Environmental Services team earlier in the week. I mentioned about the degree of public consultation and care that the developers, The Anderson Group are taking.  The person agreed strongly with me – they said that in many years of dealing with property developers, The Anderson Group were amongst the best, and they had the most properly thought through environmental policies. I happened to mention the handful of local people who would like the development banned and the quarry site left as a nature reserve. We both agreed that this was never going to happen, as the area needs the housing and the jobs that will come with it; not only that but they confirmed something that I had long suspected – the quarry site suffers from a high level of ground pollution caused by a variety of illegally dumped chemicals. You may recall that some time ago I wrote about my recollections of the old Atlas Chemical and Paint factory that used to be located in Fraser Road, roughly where the Wickes DIY store is now situated. Atlas was owned and operated by Denis Thatcher, who rose from the shop floor to become the proprietor. When the factory was closed down in the 1980’s, many drums of chemicals were left on the site, only to mysteriously disappear apparently overnight. My contact from Environmental Services confirmed that the drums of noxious liquid were dumped on the quarry site – not only that, but apparently when the geological and ground contamination surveys were undertaken by an independent consulting company, they also found a World War II era military tank buried on the site – so much for it being ideal as a nature reserve! Apparently pre – construction remedial action is planned, which will remove all of the contaminated soil and other materials so that the site will be clean when the builders first move in and start work. It was interesting to speak to someone on the inside of the construction and planning process, and to get an insight into the relationships that develop between the parties. I feel that the development of Erith Quarry will be seen as a positive step overall, and that it is now down to The Anderson Group and their public relations consultants Lexington Communications to manage local people’s expectations and to maintain a steady stream of accurate and up to date information in respect of the multi million pound project.


I am not a great follower of sport; for the most part I fail to see the point of it, but once again I bow to my overall personal libertarian philosophy of “if it works for you”. One thing I have noticed recently is that minor league Formula One team Caterham Racing have filed for voluntary administration, and that finances are so bad that  the team’s 230 staff have not been paid  since the 30th September. Caterham Racing were owned by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, who also owns the Caterham Group, which consists of a couple of high technology companies and the famous high performance car manufacturer. The principal concern is how financially healthy the non F1 Caterham Group companies are; there is a strong local interest here, as the Caterham Cars offices and factory are located in Kennet Road, off Thames Road in Crayford (see the photo above – click for a larger view), and many employees live locally. If the whole Caterham Group are in difficulty, it could have severe consequences for the highly skilled and experienced workforce.  There currently is no news to this effect, but it must be very worrying for all of those involved. If you work for Caterham, and would like to let me know what is going on in the Crayford factory in complete confidence, then drop me a line to hugh.neal@gmail.com.

The red telephone box (which incidentally was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – who was the architect of the old Erith Odeon cinema) that has for so many years formed an integral part of the British high street is looking very much like an endangered species; fewer and fewer people use them to make calls, and nowadays they seem to be the de facto urinal – probably not helped by the fact that Bexley Council has done away with all the public toilets in the borough. If one is lucky, a fee taking automated “Turdis” loo may be available, but more often than not there is nothing. The widespread use of mobile phones has effectively made phone boxes obsolete. Much debate has been undertaken as to what the phone boxes can now be used for, but no definitive outcome has arisen. It may be worth the UK’s local authorities looking across the Atlantic Ocean to see what New York City are doing – they have come up with a solution that is both economically viable and also decidedly imaginative and creative. The city announced Monday that it had selected a consortium of advertising, technology and telecom companies to deploy throughout the city thousands of modern-day pay phones that will offer 24-hour, free gigabit Wi-Fi connections, free calls to anywhere in the U.S., touch-screen displays with direct access to city services, maps and directions for tourists, and charging stations (for the mobile phones that most residents would prefer to use). The devices will also be capable of connecting people straight to emergency responders, and broadcasting alerts from the city during emergencies like Hurricane Sandy. The whole system, city officials said, will constitute the largest free municipal Wi-Fi network in the world. All of it will be funded by what the providers say will be an astonishingly large revenue stream from sophisticated digital advertising — picture different and constantly fine-tuned ads depending on the block — that's projected to generate for the city $500 million over the next 12 years. Scott Goldsmith, the chief commercial officer at the advertising company Titan working on the contract, says the infrastructure will "revolutionize how advertising is delivered in the biggest media market in the world." Fifty percent of that revenue will go to the city. The end product will no longer be called a "pay phone." The city is calling the new devices "links”. This sounds interesting, and it looks like a very viable pointer to the future. New York City has a sufficient density of pay phones to make coverage pretty much guaranteed to be continuous. I am unsure if the same could be said of central London or Birmingham for example, as many phone kiosks have already been removed. The principle remains the same however, and with sufficient investment (not to mention civic will to do it) I see no reason why British cities could not offer the same model, especially as it would seem of be capable of returning a sizable profit, not just paying its way. It will be interesting to see what investigation local authorities undertake in respect of this – especially after the disastrous Rabbit Phone project of the early 1990’s



You can occasionally still see faded Rabbit Phone signs outside of post offices and other public buildings, many years after the plug was pulled on the service The photo above was taken many years ago on Watford Junction Station - somewhere that I know rather better than I care to - I have to travel there regularly for meetings for my day job. Rabbit Phone was a system set up by mobile phone company Hutchinson (later re – branded as Orange). Rabbit was what was termed a “Telepoint” service - Telepoint services such as Rabbit allowed subscribers to carry specially designed (CT2) home phone handsets with them and make outgoing calls whenever they were within one hundred metres of a Rabbit transmitter / receiver unit. Original plans were for twelve thousand base stations to be placed around the UK by December 1992. The first service was launched in Greater Manchester in May 1992 with the entire city centre of Manchester covered with Rabbit base stations. The service was then rolled out to the rest of the North of England and there was nationwide coverage in the autumn of 1993. At the height of Rabbit's operations there were 12,000 base stations and 10,000 customers in the UK. The service ceased in December 1993, only twenty months after being launched. Rabbit had two thousand subscribers at the time the service closed. The failure of Rabbit can be mainly attributed to the rapid fall in cost of analogue mobile phones from Cellnet and Vodafone, which also accepted incoming calls, and were not limited to a small number of  geographical contact points that the rabbit system was tied to. The imminent conversion of these mobile phone networks to the modern-day GSM standard sealed Rabbit's fate. Hutchison lost around $183 million from the failure of Rabbit, but soon made the money back with the very successful launch of the Orange mobile phone network. I think any organisation planning to deploy a modern city – wide WiFi service as per the New York model will need to ensure that both the technology and the business model meet with the users expectations; if this can be done, I can see no reason why it could not be a resounding success.  What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

Further to my musings last week in relation to the possible future use of the White Hart / Potion bar, now that it has stood empty for such a time, I have had an Email from a reader who would rather remain anonymous; she tells me that the venue is definitely being researched as a possible retail outlet once again; whether it is Subway looking at it as previously mentioned, or if another company is looking at the former pub is still uncertain. From my own research it is clear that there is definite commercial interest in the place, but the potential occupants are taking great pains to keep their tracks covered for now. This is quite common in commercial property negotiations, and should not be seen as anything other than normal commercial practice. If any reader has any further information, please let me know – any discussions will be held in complete confidence.

I stumbled across the end video completely by chance; it is a piece of digitised 8mm cine film showing Bexleyheath and the Broadway shopping area "then and now", the "then" being the early 1930's, and the "now" being the autumn of 1987. The whole thing is a remarkable period piece, and it makes for fascinating viewing. Do give it a watch and please feel free to comment below, or alternatively Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.