Ripped from its hinges, a heavy security door lies on the pavement outside Wensdale House, Northwold Estate, the entrance to the flat behind it now open to the elements.
“I wouldn’t feel safe in a block without a door,” Emily Jost remarks as we pass by.
Shielded from the cold by a black suede coat, patterned silk scarf and black beret, she gestures with gloved hands to indicate areas of the estate that are marked out for demolition.
Jost’s hair is a brighter orange than it was when we first met by the stall she’d set up outside a ‘consultation event’ regarding proposed demolitions on the estate where she lives. This was the first act of her campaign, ‘Save Northwold’. She handed me a double-sided A4 of questions for The Guinness Partnership, the housing association that owns Northwold and wants to demolish a third of it to make room for luxury accommodation.
“We have the right to the truth,” it declared. “Demand answers in writing.”
“The first thing I heard was the letter that came in early July.” Back in her flat, she digs it out of a box. “You can tell by the fluorescent highlighter that all the alarm bells rang for me. I knew what it meant. A lot of people getting that letter did not understand what it meant at all.”
Nevertheless, she admits to surprise at the timing. “I’d have thought they’d let the estate get more rundown before they’d dare say it needed knocking down.
“It’s going to break up the estate physically. It’s definitely going to be an us-and-them situation with the new fancy flats and the old rundown flats that they don’t want to maintain. Is it going to be gated? Are the posh ones going to have nice landscaping around them leaving the rest to rack and ruin?”
Flat… or garden?
Jost’s own flat – which is not marked out for demolition – is unlike any other I’ve ever seen.
House plants and wall creepers cover every available surface, so that walking through the door feels a bit like accidentally stumbling into a rainforest. Jost’s garden, which starts a couple of metres outside her front door on the concrete walkway leading into the flat and extends to every inch of the interior, is astonishing. A certificate hangs on a rare clear space of wall.
“I’ve won an award twice for that, but I only came second,” she remarks, a proud smile belying the apparent modesty. A few years ago, she says, Guinness tried to make her get rid of her plants. She doesn’t want to talk about it, but clearly, they were unsuccessful.
Jost admits that, working in an art gallery, she’s never done any political campaigning before. She agrees it’s a strain on her time, but insists it’s too important to give up. Crucially, she sees herself as part of a wider movement.
— Save Northwold (@SaveNorthwoldE5) March 20, 2017
From the Occupy movement to the young single mums who fought evictions in Newham, to the tenants of the New Era Estate in Hoxton who won a battle against rent hikes with the high-profile support of comedian Russell Brand, housing activism has become ubiquitous across London. Accusations of social cleansing and gentrification have brought with them the radicalisation of ordinary residents like Jost, forced into action by threats to their communities.
“Everyone needs a roof over their heads, somewhere secure that they can make their own,” Jost insists. “And if that’s under attack it’s like fundamental human rights under attack. I will go to other things and offer my support in different ways to other campaigns when I can. For me, this isn’t just about my own home and my own estate. This is a microcosm of a much bigger problem.”
Most of Northwold Estate was built in 1938, with the last of the buildings visible today added in the 1950s, as part of a massive building enterprise by Attlee’s Labour government, intended to repair the damage done to London in the Blitz, and to provide affordable homes for the city.
“All of this will be destroyed, including that,” Jost explains, as we walk past a concrete football pitch surrounded by green fencing. “It’s used every day, even in the dark. It’s well-lit, so local kids actually use it to play football, they don’t use it for anti-social behaviour.”
External lift shafts, added in the early 2000s, overlook much of the estate like sentry towers, their ruby red exteriors marking a stark contrast to the stolid brown brickwork of the surrounding flats. Their addition was part of the work started when the estate was transferred from council ownership in 1999 to a local housing association called Clapton Community Housing Trust.
Around ten years later, in a business development that has been replicated in the housing sector all over the country, the association was subsumed into the much larger Guinness Partnership. Jost only briefly experienced the old owners, but she says they managed the estate better.
“There used to be an office where tenants and residents could go and speak to a person if their door was broken or if they had a neighbour causing anti-social behaviour. Now, you have to phone an anonymous number, you can’t get through to a main person, you certainly can’t go and speak to anyone face-to-face.”
As we walk around the estate, Jost points to litter, fly-tipping and play areas that have needed refurbishment for years, as examples of what she says is a deliberate attempt by Guinness to make the estate difficult to live in.
“The point of managed decline,” she explains, “is to make people move away, it’s to make people not value the properties, to enable them to make a case for demolition.”
Guinness denies this charge. A spokesperson for the association told the Hackney Post: “It is regrettable that this accusation has been made. It is untrue.
“Guinness has a rolling programme of investment in all our 65,000 homes across the country. We’ve invested a significant amount of money on improving and maintaining Northwold since we took it on from the local authority, including £1.1m last year and £800,000 the year before.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think that Northwold could be dramatically improved with just a little effort, but Guinness is more focused on knocking it down. It’s also difficult to imagine Guinness’ preferred future residents entering their luxury flats through a hole in the wall where the security door used to be.