Sunday, October 13, 2013

The bane of BrightHouse.

The photo above shows the former Erith Trades and Social Club building in James Watt Way, which is currently being demolished (click on the photo for a larger view). It will be replaced by a block of flats. Some of the nearby Sycamore trees will have to be cut down in the process of the construction work; my understanding is that the developer has applied for the tree preservation orders that they are currently under to be removed. To be honest the trees are not that healthy looking anyway, so I don't think that they will be too great a loss. It may seem strange to build yet more flats in the local area when so many have already been constructed recently; there must still be still be a market for new build properties at the entry level of the market. I suppose it could have something to do with Erith being one of the cheapest places to live within easy commuting distance of central London. The fact that the new apartment block development is going ahead, joining the massive Erith Park residential redevelopment, the new Bexley College building, and on a smaller scale, the comprehensive refurbishment and conversion of the old Cross Keys pub into office space, all means that Erith is seeing a lot of high quality investment - something that it has sorely needed for years. The town is growing, and its' population demographic changing. As long as services such as schools and social care grow in proportion to cope with the new influx of residents, it could be the start of a very interesting period in Eriths' history.

Over the past few months I have written about my concerns for Bexleyheath Broadway, and how the town is turning into a retail desert; around a third of the shop units are currently standing empty. My worst fears were compounded when I discovered that a large Brighthouse store has recently opened, almost opposite the Asda superstore. To my mind, the definitive indicator that a town has gone to the dogs is when Brighthouse move in.  I was reading an article recently, in which Karl Dayson, an academic who specialises in the study of affordable finance said that “I can think of no better marker of social deprivation than having a Brighthouse store open in your area”.  If you have not heard of the Brighthouse  stores before, let me explain. Brighthouse are a chain of retailers specialising in household goods such as furniture, washing machines, televisions and cookers. Their unique selling point is that you can purchase goods on credit with no deposit, and with very low weekly repayments. The store is designed to appeal to young families – the aisles between goods on display are wide enough for a child’s buggy to be wheeled easily along them. Brighthouse offer credit to those who would otherwise be unable to qualify for it – mainly people on benefits. This all sounds great – helping those otherwise unable to afford the basics of a home to get what they need. The downside of it is the eye wateringly high interest rates that Brighthouse charges. Several debt charities have expressed dismay at the high charges. A basic washing machine that costs £399 in Curry's will cost £1,560 from Brighthouse, albeit broken down into “affordable” £10 weekly payments at an interest rate of 69.9% APR. Just like the notorious pay day lenders, the poorer you are, the more you pay for goods and services. Debt advisor Anne Young, who has advised many former Brighthouse customers said “These companies are preying on people who cannot afford to go anywhere else. I do think that they are robbing the poor, when you look at their prices. They are charging a ridiculous amount for goods you can buy on the high street for a third of the price”.  To give an example, a small television which costs £99.99 in Argos would cost a total of £606.84 paid over a total of 156 weeks. Brighthouse argue that their TV is covered against malfunction and accidental damage over the course of the repayment period, but this needs to be set against the fact that you could buy six similar televisions for that amount of money elsewhere.  Brighthouse claim that if you can find an identical product anywhere on the high street, that they will match the price. This is actually quite difficult, as Brighthouse have a lot of “own name” brands, such as Baird; these are simply not available anywhere else; they also include a number of options that other retailers on the high street don’t, and the pricing structure is so bewilderingly complex that direct comparison is rather difficult. Brighthouse are looking to aggressively expand their stores – Bexleyheath is merely the latest opening. They plan to open another four hundred stores to add to the 288 that they currently operate, which are usually located in areas with high levels of poverty. The demographic for Brighthouse customers is fairly straightforward; a majority are women between 26 and 45 years of age; they earn less than £13,000 a year, and around fifty percent are receiving at least part of their income in the form of benefits. You can really view Brighthouse as a cross between somewhere like Argos and loan company – and its’ customers are overwhelmingly people who do not qualify for a credit card or score too lowly for a conventional, lower interest loan. The kind of goods that the company sells (furniture / consumer electronics) do tend to depreciate over the course of the loan period, to the point that by the time the loan is fully paid off, the goods are essentially worthless. On top of this, Brighthouse have a policy of repossessing goods if payments are not met, even if the customer is only one or two payments away from completing the purchase.  Normally a court order is required to repossess goods when more than a third of the credit payments have already been met. Brighthouse have a nasty habit of sending round bailiffs without such legal niceties – exploiting the fact that many of their customers are ignorant of the law. All in all, Brighthouse succeed because they can – their target customer does not qualify for a loan from a conventional source, and is not aware of low cost resources such as credit unions. They rely on the customer being sucked in to the colourful, brightly lit and shiny shop with the promise of low repayments, even if they do end up paying for what seems like half a lifetime. The appeal of the “here and now” rather than waiting and saving to buy from a store that offers no credit, but a consequently far lower purchase price is something that Brighthouse encourage – many of their customers have little academic education, and don’t necessarily realise that they may only be paying back a tenner or so a week for their 3D television, but doing so for several years means it is costing them a pile more money than it should. In my opinion, Brighthouse operate a legal business; whether they operate a moral one is open to debate.

Local amateur investigative journalist, blogger and owner of the excellent “Bexley is Bonkers” website, Malcolm Knight has hit the headlines this week; he is featured in the Bexley Times in an article about how much of the tax payers’ cash Bexley Council has paid in hush money to departing employees to prevent them from spilling the beans about the council’s practices. Over the last three years, Bexley Council have spend more than a million pounds split between fifty five former employees  - that is an average of just over £18,000 per case – a not unsubstantial amount of dosh, especially since it actually comes from our pockets. The information concerning these large payouts only came to light after a freedom of information request was submitted on the subject. You can read more by clicking here.

I was asked earlier this week what benefits I saw about Bexley College, and their forthcoming move to their new campus site in Walnut Tree Road; well, I think that this is quite straightforward. The college will bring a lot of potential customers to the shops in the Riverside Shopping Centre - over a thousand students a day will be coming into the centre of town - the old college building is over a mile from the new location, and very few students currently come into central Erith. The biggest places to benefit will be the takeaways and other food shops - although the refectory in the new building will no doubt be good, the appeal of the fast food shops will be there. Also, most of the students will be using public transport, as many are under 21 and would find affording a car (and getting insurance) a real problem. This will mean that the footfall through the town centre will go up markedly in my opinion. The college also will be offering evening classes - which tend to appeal to an older demographic - which will also mean new people travelling into the town. These people will need parking; it is my understanding that there will be little or no on campus parking, as the college are keen to encourage the use of public transport (which is pretty good to be honest). I anticipate the car park in Cross Street will get a lot of use, as will the car park by The Running Horses, as these are the two in closest proximity with the new college. Potentially the whole of central Erith will be exposed to a lot of people who would otherwise have no reason to visit the town. This has got to be a good thing, and something that should be encouraged.

One subject that is allied to the piece on Brighthouse is the whole vexed subject of people on a low income who have a very large flat screen television. Some academic studies have been carried out on the subject, and the results have been actually quite surprising. It has been noted for some years that wealthier, middle class people tend to have fewer televisions in their houses, and they tend to be older models with smaller screens.  The reason for this is thought to be that middle class people generally spend less time watching the television, as they are likely to attend theatre, cinema, sports and the arts, as well as eating out and socialising on a regular basis. The television is regarded as an incidental item. Researchers found that people with lower incomes tend to be more home – centric; their social lives are more likely to revolve around their living rooms and the television; they tend not to go out much, and when they do, it is more likely to be local to them – to a friend or neighbour living nearby. Thus they place a far higher value on items for the home like a large television or games console, which is their principle source of leisure and entertainment. This certainly seems to make sense – and would no doubt drive the Daily Mail into a frenzy should it come across the story.  I suppose that there are exceptions to this though; I can afford to go out as much as I like, but I am a real home lover and would rather spend time indoors, in my home office or living room; the world has changed greatly in the last decade or so; fast broadband connections mean that all sorts of media content can be streamed to the home; you no longer need to go to the inconvenience of a cinema visit, when you can see the movie in full HD quality in the comfort of your own home. I personally have little time for the theatre, and all of the hassle that it entails. I do like a live gig every so often, but nowadays it has to be something really special to entice me out of Pewty Acres on a cold and wintery evening.
In just over a year of production, the Raspberry Pi Foundation have manufactured in excess of one million Raspberry Pi computers. This is an astonishing amount, and proof if it be needed that there is a huge market for a simple, cheap computer running open source software that can be used by children to learn programming. The Raspberry Pi is the modern equivalent of the BBC Micro from the 1980’s – a machine that introduced many children of the time to Basic programming and (at the time, more importantly, games) – like the groundbreaking Elite. Schools around the UK were equipped with BBC Micros, and they became the de facto standard computer in education for many years. The situation was different in the home, however. The BBC Micro, was at the time highly capable computer, one of the first with the ability to add a second processor and also equipped as standard with a basic form of networking. These kind of features were great to have, but added greatly to the expense of the machine. Kids were far more likely to have a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or even a Amstrad CPC464 in their bedroom. All of these machines (and a great many other models) were “good enough” – for example, the Spectrum had a very limited technical specification, but it was very easy to program, had bright and colourful graphics, and an absolutely huge library of software of varying quality available for it.  The fact that the UK has such a thriving software industry today is directly as a result. A lot of the kids who spent hours in darkened bedrooms playing games, then learning to write their own software code are now adults who are guiding lights in the UK software industry. Recent blockbuster games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 may be American themed, but was actually conceived and developed in Scotland. The game has earned over a billion dollars in revenue within mere weeks of release, more than any Hollywood movie. This one area where Britain really does still lead the world. The Raspberry Pi is designed to be the BBC Micro for today; hopefully the next generation of hit software makers will be nurtured by using the Pi. Only time will tell. More on early computing further down.

I have an apology to make; it would appear that in last weeks’ update I made a factual error.  Thankfully I was corrected in the week by this note from Joan McCarthy, the secretary of the Friends of Riverside Gardens Erith (FORGE). "I read your blog on the Erith Town Forum meeting which was quite pleasing.  However, I have one correction, the Forum do not supply flowers and gardeners, etc., for the Riverside Gardens but these are supplied by Friends Of Erith Riverside Gardens Erith ("FORGE") which is an entirely separate organisation - although a lot of the people attending the Erith Forum are also FORGE members.  This is by no means a criticism of you as I can understand that attending the meeting for the first time and having to speak to a load of strangers you were not to know who is who and who belongs to what!  I was at that meeting and I thought you spoke very well.  I have followed your blogs for some time and it was nice to see you in the flesh so to speak. You may like to know that FORGE entered the Bexley Environmental Challenge competition again this year (we won a Bronze Award last year) and I am pleased to say that we won two awards this time.  The ceremony took place at the Civic Offices on Monday 7th October.  We were presented with a framed Silver Gilt Award and a cheque for £40 in the Environmental Project section; and a framed Community Environment Award and a cheque for £100 in the Special section.  The Community Environment award also came with the Silver Rose Bowl Trophy (which we keep for one year) and a "Jeannie" trophy which is ours to keep.  The "Jeannie"  trophy is a beautiful engraved glass globe on a glass stand.   The Jeannie trophies were donated by former councillor Jean Attenbring who is now 94 years of age.  She was present at the award ceremony and is a grand old lady.  Regrettably, this is the last year of the Bexley Environmental Challenge.  When we return the Silver Rose Bowl next year it will be placed in a show cabinet in the new Bexley Offices and the legend  "FORGE 2013" shown as the last name engraved on its stand, the first being in 1998".

On top of this, I was contacted a couple of days ago by Maggot Sandwich reader, and fairly recent Erith resident John, who made the following observations on something that I wrote recently. "I regularly read your blog, which for the most part I particularly enjoy. This week's instalment had me spitting teeth though. The bit where you write about the food hygiene stars and then go on to name and shame those establishments which have a zero rating. Whilst I appreciate your intentions which I think are noble perhaps you might want to visit and speak to the owners of those establishments. I have one particular establishment in mind and that is Foods 4 U. If you go down to the shop and speak to the owner you may discover why they have said rating. I suppose though I best declare some sort of bias. The establishment concerned is a wholesaler of South African foods etc. I am a regular visitor to the shop and every time I go it is always neat, clean and tidy and undeserving of its zero rating. The reason I suggest you go visit the owner is because they have had a long running feud with Bexley council re: The wind turbine that went up overnight amongst other things. The cynic in me says their rating has absolutely nothing to do with the hygiene and more to do with the vindictiveness of Bexley council (Which I more than most in Bexley have experienced first hand). I have been in places in Erith that deserve that zero rating more. Anyway, keep up with the blog I do enjoy it, especially the bits about Erith being a newcomer to that part of Bexley." Interesting feedback John; it appears that observational reality and Bexley Council may be at variance in this case.
The ending video this week features a trailer for a brand new observational comedy movie that is being released in America in a couple of weeks. It was shot on thirty year old black and white analogue video cameras in the old 4:3 video format. It is a fictional account of one of the earliest computer chess competitions in America - where amateur hackers and professional programmers alike pitted their home written chess playing programs at each other, to see who could write the strongest chess playing computer program (before anyone points it out, the accepted spelling of the word when related to computers is actually program rather than programme - I don't make the rules, merely obey them). The film is actually a character piece, featuring a number of eccentric, oddball characters alongside some interesting and sympathetic ones. Much of the film was improvised in a similar way to the excellent "This is Spinal Tap" (see the Glastonbury live video clip above) - one could say that "Computer Chess" is trying to do for the tech world what "Spinal Tap" did for the music business. Watch the trailer and make up your own mind.


  1. Eeee the old Eriff' Traaades club, I only went there once and to be honest it didn't look to different inside as it now looks outside…
    I don't think it's strange to turn it into flats at all, people always need places to live and once you've bought the land and built it BANG! you can make a mint. Think about it say 20 flats at what 180k-ish each? £3.5 million…
    It's also a lot easier to manage and make a (quick) profit on than say building a retail/pub unit.
    Why do you think the demographic of the town is changing?
    I defiantly agree that Erith is now the strongest it's been (well at least in in my lifetime) although apart from Morrison's and the shops there's nothing really to bring people to the area, no pubs/bars/restaurants or in fact anything to do after dark except go to the wonderful Erith Playhouse.

    Talking all things houses, Brighthouse.
    Oh dear.
    Oh dear, oh dear (and not just for the pun!)
    I once looked out of interest at buying a games console when I happen to wander in and have a mooch about and it was double the price of early other retailer once you'd paid it off about 10 years later. My opinion is you've got to be desperate or stupid to buy anything from them. The other point you made is that it does seem a lot of "financial disadvanced" people do tend to have the latest big screen TV, games console etc and I totally agree that in my experice both in a professional and personal capacity it's because when you're at home, a lot, home entertainment is king. It's also if you think about it something possibly "they" can afford or attain to, you can't afford a flash car but can stretch yourself on HP to buy something to enjoy and show off to the neighbours. Why save the money when you're sitting in a dingy flat when you can be distracted from the humdrum…
    I don't agree middle class people tend not to watch as much TV though. Have you ever looked at what's on TV? How much more middle class can you get than Strictly Come Dancing? Call The Midwife? Miranda? can you get?!
    You said it "…it has to be something really special to entice me out of Pewty Acres on a cold and wintery evening", I though nothing short of dynamite or an illegal fly-tipper that got you out these days?! LOL!

    I have to say I applaud the Pi but…well…okay I'm not "down with the kids" but does seem like although a worthy idea it would be about as welcome to a kid nowadays as opening a BBC Micro on Christmas Day would have been when I was a kid.
    If you had a BBC Micro when I was at school it was the norm to give a pained smile and move swiftly on.