I took the photo above yesterday afternoon as the sun was setting over All Saint's Church in Nuxley Road, Upper Belvedere. Click on it to see a larger view.
Staff morale at the Erith branch of Morrison's has hit what is reported to be an all-time low. On condition of anonymity, I have spoken to several members of staff over the last week and the mood is bleak. Word has got around that all but four of the staffed checkouts are going to be removed and replaced with self service checkouts, and as a result of this there are going to be a number of redundancies. There are also rumours that disgruntled customers may boycott the supermarket as a result of the unwelcome changes, as I have previously mentioned. Senior management of the Erith Morrison's store are also against the replacement of all but four staffed checkouts but they have been overruled by head office. The supermarket chain is now owned by an American investment company, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a US private equity firm, who have in the recent past been accused of saddling the previously family-owned supermarket chain with debt, and any loyalty to staff is now long gone. The removal of the standard checkouts will happen sometime after Christmas, although the precise date is not yet known; It will be instructive to see if a boycott of the Erith store does indeed materialise. As with many things, the USA are years ahead of the UK and most of Europe when it comes to self service checkout use, and the antipathy that many US supermarket customers have is palpable. In a recent article in the Guardian, journalist Wilfred Chan wrote an article on the backlash in the US against self service checkouts. He wrote:- "When the first self-checkout kiosks were rolled out in American stores more than three decades ago, they were presented as technology that could help stores cut costs, save customers time, and even prevent theft. Businesses still fret over these issues, and against a tight labour market, more companies are making self-checkouts the norm. This week Walmart revealed that thefts from its stores are at a historical high, which many staff and customers link to self-checkouts. But not only have the machines failed to live up to their promises; they’ve made things harder for just about everyone, including the workers who they were supposed to replace. Supermarket required to supervise an uninterrupted stream of up to four customers at once – “like a shark with blood in the water” – as they struggle with the scanner and touchscreen, and sometimes try to shoplift. “You’re confined to that little place, and you’re pretty much standing in one spot for up to eight hours a day, which just kills your feet. And having to deal with so many people just drains your mental battery,” one says. In 2018, just 18% of all grocery store transactions went through a self-checkout, rising to 30% last year. Walmart, Kroger, Dollar General, and Albertson’s are now among retail chains testing out full self-checkout stores. Christopher Andrews, a sociologist who examined the kiosks in his 2018 book, The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. Despite what grocery stores and kiosk manufacturers claim, research shows self-checkouts aren’t actually any faster than a regular checkout line, Andrews says. “It only feels like it because your time is occupied doing tasks, rather than paying attention to each second ticking away.” Neither have they reduced the need for workers: despite the increase in self-checkouts, Bureau of Labour Statistics data shows the number of cashiers employed in the US has remained virtually the same over the last 10 years. And any reduction in low-wage workers has been offset by the need to pay technicians to maintain the kiosks, Andrews says – and the kiosks can cost as much as $150,000 for a single row. So if self-checkouts are so ineffective, why do we have them at all? The self-service policies of modern supermarkets have largely been “imposed by the companies, not because of customers asking for it”, says Andrews. Andrews says his research has found that the majority of people don’t actually want self-checkouts. The real reason stores use them, he says, is because their competitors do. “It’s not working great for anybody, but everybody feels like they have to have it. The companies think: ‘If we can just convince more people to do this, maybe we can start to reduce some overhead.’” Meanwhile, self-checkouts have become a prime target for fraudsters, who use a variety of tactics to beat anti-theft measures. Weight sensors can be defeated by ringing up expensive items – like king crab legs – as cheap items like apples. James, the cashier in Washington, says he saw a customer trying to buy a $1,600 grill for $5 by hiding one item inside another and switching the bar codes. That has led to an arms race of sorts as some retailers have responded with increasingly strong measures. Walmart is known for aggressively prosecuting shoplifters and has installed AI-powered cameras near its self-checkout areas with a “missed scan detection” feature. “It turns what’s supposed to be a leisurely activity of shopping into a quasi-TSA, airport-style security check,” says Andrews. Measures like these have drawn scorn from labour advocates. Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 1 million retail workers, says “a well-staffed store with well-trained employees who check out customers is the easy and smart solution”. Instead, Perrone says, retailers like Walmart have increasingly sought to use self-checkouts to cut jobs and increase profits". Whilst this has specifically been the experience in the USA, it is almost inevitable that the same situation will arise in the UK - indeed as we are now seeing with Morrison's in Erith, the invasion of the almost exclusively self service supermarket is almost with us now. There is an additional concern that I uncovered whilst researching this article - The checkout screens could also be a threat to your health, according to a recent study by the UK-based Infection Innovation Consortium that took samples from a selection of everyday objects. “The self-checkout samples had one of the highest bacterial loads, as we found five different types of potential disease-causing bacteria surviving on them,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Adam Roberts, in a statement. “This included Enterococcus, which is found in human faeces and, while this is usually harmless, it can of course lead to disease, particularly in those who may have weakened immune systems.” What do you think? 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I was travelling back to Erith from Upper Belvedere on Monday evening on the 99 bus, when I was joined on the upper deck by four teenagers. Nothing unusual there of course. What then transpired was somewhat out of the ordinary. The group consisted of two boys - I guess ages about 14 or so, and two girls who were probably 12 or 13. The boys were both hyperactive and very twitchy, as if they had taken something. It was then I noticed that they were both carrying cans of a high caffeine energy drink. I thought that energy drink sales were restricted in a similar way to alcohol, but I was incorrect in this assumption. A ban on the sale of energy drinks to under 16's was proposed back in 2018, but it never became law. The situation seems to be quite complex; Energy drinks were popularised in the 1980s and marketed as a tool for helping physical and mental productivity, underpinned by their high levels of sugar and caffeine. Brands quickly paired with sporting events and athletes and the drinks were branded as performance enhancers. In recent years, energy drinks have taken the mainstream drinks industry by storm. Manufacturers no longer just focus on sports to sell their drinks but have also infiltrated gaming culture, extreme sports, and the music industry; Redbull even has its own music academy. They have become so embedded in pop culture, particularly youth pop culture, that young people in the UK now drink more energy drinks than the rest of Europe. A big concern is the sheer amount of caffeine in these drinks: one can often contains much more caffeine than a coffee (and a concoction of other stimulants, artificial flavourings and sugar) and many young people will drink several cans in one go. In fact, the government’s consultation in 2018 found that a quarter of children who consume energy drinks will have three or more in one sitting. There are major concerns about the long- and short-term implications on mental and physical health, and research has pointed to negative impacts of energy drinks on children that span from behavioural, concentration and sleeping problems through to headaches, heart failure, and other physical problems, as well as addiction. In 2018, these negative impacts on young people led the then government to propose a ban of sales to the under-16s. They were supported by parents, teachers, and campaigners alike, as well as retailers. Supermarkets like Tesco, Morrison’s and Asda introduced their own voluntary bans which are still upheld today, and the Association of Convenience Stores were supportive on the grounds that a formal policy creates a ‘level playing field’ for all stores. Within government, MPs within the Science and Technology committee also commissioned their own report and issued formal support for the ban based ‘on the basis of societal concerns and qualitative evidence, such as the experience of school teachers’. The main cause of push-back from industry and hesitancy from government was claims of insufficient quantitative evidence of the impacts of consumption. There is, nonetheless, a plethora of observational and anecdotal evidence from researchers, parents and teachers, and the most recent systematic review found some damning evidence linking high levels of consumption with alcohol use, smoking, irritability and school exclusion. All this did not stop the government from following through with the commitment. In 2019, following a widely supported consultation (93% were in favour), the government formally introduced the ban within the Health Outcomes Green Paper, having found that advice and warning labels had not been enough of a deterrent. Unsurprisingly, focus was moved elsewhere in 2020 and 2021 as we grappled with the pandemic, and the policy was never formally introduced. But now it seems to have quietly dropped off the agenda completely. As schools fall back into their pre 2020 routines, and children and young people are making up for lost time with their peers, teachers are concerned that energy drinks with continue to become increasingly popular, especially as major brands are now using influencers, popular musicians and sports fans to promote the drinks to younger audiences. Without a formal ban, there is only so much schools can do to prevent consumption and popularity of energy drinks. Many schools do not allow energy drinks on campus but outside the of school gates, there are no limits.
The following announcement was published late last week by local Charitable Community Benefit Society The Exchange:- "During the pandemic, The Exchange brought together various organisations working within the town centre to discuss how we can work together better, develop town-wide programming and shout about Erith louder. With funding support, the partners have been responsible for the latest ERITH MADE festival, the young person-led programme across different local venues, a new website for Erith and the pop-up cinema in the Riverside Shopping Centre. The programme and partnership has been managed incredibly by Jade, working for The Exchange, but who many of you will know from Theatre Box Performing Arts Academy. Unfortunately, the funding The Exchange has received to support the Partnership develop (from the Architectural Heritage Fund and Bexley Council) will run out at the end of March. However! The Partners - which consist of over 25 town centre organisations - have agreed to keep things going, and we will be setting up a separate legal entity - The Erith Town Partnership - to help grow the collective work and bring in additional funds for Erith. It will be set up as a Community Interest Company with Directors nominated from a membership made up of the local organisations". Visit their new website by clicking here.
I get a number of requests for more articles on local history; this week I cover the story of how Erith got electrified. The supply of electricity began as a municipal service with the signing of the Erith Electric Lighting Order of 1899. The undertaking was run by the Erith Electric Lighting and Tramways Committee (my goodness, they liked their titles back then!) The power station for the venture was built in Walnut Tree Road (where a large substation exists to this day). The supply of electricity began on the 12th January 1903. All current for the town was generated at this station until 1922, when part of the supply was then obtained from Woolwich Power Station; by 1927 the Walnut Tree Road power station was deemed surplus to requirements, and all power was generated at Woolwich. Not long after the start of generation in 1903, a project started to convert the little street lighting that then existed in Erith from gas to electricity. The first roads in the area to get electric street lights were Erith High Street, Bexley Road, then two in Belvedere - Albert Road, adjacent to Nuxley Road (though at the time it was somewhat confusingly named Bexley Road). The only other road in the area that was fitted with electric lights was Station Road in Lower Belvedere, coincidentally still the site of a particularly large electricity substation to this day. Despite electrification, and probably due to the high levels of poverty in the area, the domestic use of electricity was extremely low for many years. When the supply began, the population of Erith was approximately 25,000 people. In 1903, the first year of supply, only 189 private electricity customers were registered. The number took until 1911 to reach one thousand, and until 1926 to reach two thousand. The number only started to dramatically increase when the relative cost of electricity began to fall, and as new housing estates were built both in Erith and Northumberland Heath. The new houses were fitted with electric lights and sockets as standard, so the new power source suddenly gained in popularity.
I thought this week I would highlight a radio phenomenon that is particularly prominent during the Christmas and New Year holiday period – the weekend hobby radio pirates. These stations come on air sporadically for a few hours, usually on a Saturday night or Sunday morning during most of the year, but also over the festive holiday season, almost certainly broadcast from the operators’ spare bedroom or garden shed. They usually broadcast on Shortwave, and probably only have audiences numbering in the couple of dozen. Nevertheless there are a number of people who have made it their hobby to monitor and record when these stations come on air, and what content they broadcast. The transmitters these pirates use are usually either home – made, or modified amateur radio equipment, re tuned to work on the Shortwave broadcast radio bands, rather than the legally allocated amateur radio spectrum. These pirates operate pretty much with impunity nowadays – back in the 1980’s at the height of land based pirate radio activity, enforcement was a lot more rigorous, when the likes of the infamous Eric Gotts of the DTI Radio Investigation Service would be chasing round the country, eager to feel a few collars and confiscate an illicit transmitter. Nowadays things are a lot less strict; the Radio Investigation Service is no more – it was subsumed into OFCOM some years ago. Nowadays unless an unlicensed transmission is causing interference with a licensed service, or someone complains, there is a very slim chance that OFCOM would take any action. In other European countries, the situation is different – in the Netherlands for example, penalties for unlicensed broadcasting are pretty strict, with fines and the confiscation of equipment being normal upon conviction. Whatever the penalties, the number of such stations has remained pretty constant for years. You can read more about them, and what radio frequencies you can find them on, and when here. Additionally, You can see a daily updated log of stations here. Have a look and let me know what you think. Incidentally, you do not actually need to own a Shortwave radio receiver to listen to the Shortwave pirates. There are a number of online, internet based radios that you can use. One that I personally find to be good is run by The University of Twente in The Netherlands. It is what is known as a Software Defined Radio (SDR). You can use the radio completely for free at any time - just click on this link to access the system.
The long running saga of what originally was to be the Paramount London Resort theme park on the Swanscombe Peninsula has taken another turn in an already confused and turbulent last few years. Bosses behind the planned £2.5bn attraction on the Swanscombe Peninsula, were presented with a winding up petition in the High Court on October 26. According to the notice, it was submitted by property consultants Knight Frank LLP, who claim to be creditors of LRCH, whose business is described as the development of a "global destination entertainment resort". In a ruling made on Wednesday of last week in the Chancery Division of the High Court, Chief ICC Judge Norman Briggs dismissed the petition. The fees involved were not disclosed but judge Briggs determined the debt had been paid. It's not the first time a business has sought redress from LRCH with law firm BDB Pitmans seeking to recover unpaid fees – understood to total more than £500,000 – from its former client last year.Theme park bosses say a "world class" entertainment resort along the banks of the River Thames is still on the cards and a fresh application will be re-submitted next year. It has been billed as one of the most ambitious theme park projects ever in Europe and would be the first of its kind to be built from scratch since the opening of Disneyland Paris in 1992. Personally I doubt that it will ever come to fruition. What do you think? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The end video this week shows a train journey from Dartford (which has just won the title of busiest railway station in Kent) and Charing Cross via Bexleyheath - a route that as of last Sunday is no more - with the withdrawal of train services into Charing Cross by Southeastern. This makes the video something of a historic document.