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Sanitised nostalgia won’t bring back the communities destroyed to make way for luxury flats

The new “regeneration” in places like Elephant and Castle in south London destroys social housing, and then invites those who have been forced out to help “preserve” the history and culture of the area.

This came through my door this week.

At first glance, a fairly innocuous looking postcard inviting us, as Elephant and Castle residents, to come and celebrate the area’s history and heritage, as well as suggesting ways for it to be memorialised around the widely-talked-about Elephant Park.

However, on closer inspection, a developer’s logo in the left hand corner tells a slightly different story. Rather than a local initiative, this is instead a scheme that has been hijacked by someone in their PR department, to boost local engagement by inviting suggestions for street and building names for the new £1.5bn development, and in turn offset any guilt at having uprooted thousands of former residents.

But at a time when the country is short on homes, and the ones we do have are getting increasingly more expensive and out of reach – just this week the national average house price leapt by 9.9 per cent to a new high of £260,000 – what actual, tangible good is this kind of naming ceremony to the community, particularly on the very site where affordable homes used to stand?

Heygate residents were forced out in their thousands to make way for this luxury development, so it might come as a surprise to many that the developers are now choosing to engage with the community in this way. Pascal Mittermaier, a Project Director for the Heygate development, is quoted on the campaign’s press release as saying: “Elephant and Castle is undergoing tremendous change and will soon be a global exemplar for the delivery of sustainable urban regeneration. It is important for us to preserve the rich culture and history of the area and to embody it in the new areas we create.”

The irony here is overwhelming. That a company who make a living out of demolishing the old and tired are then trying to engender nostalgia for the very same area is uncomfortably galling and a flawed brand of this so-called “regeneration”. They are in the process of annihilating any vestiges of the past on the site, and with the estate’s old buildings, hidden gardens and walkways having been torn down to make way for developers, they are purely appropriating people’s memories so they can furnish the new street signs and buildings.  

The truth now is that this is an area that will only hold memories of the past, with any of the actual custodians of that past having been moved on to make way for their more affluent replacements. And this represents just another weapon in developers’ and local authorities’ arsenal: PR puff to distract from the toxicity of people losing their homes and being moved from their communities.

Schemes such as these, “engagement” and “consultation” exercises, help developers fulfil the commitments they’ve made to councils in return for real estate – without having to do very much at all for the community, least of all provide enough affordable homes for those that have been displaced. 

This contributes to the wider problem affecting the housing market today, with less social tenancies available across the country as a whole. According to official figures, private renting has now overtaken social renting, with nearly 9.3 million private renters compared with 8.1 million social renters.  As a result, the waiting lists for social housing is at an all time high, with more than 1.8 million households in England waiting for a home – up 81 per cent since 1997.  These people wait in B&Bs, hostels and privately rented accommodation, which, with its accompanying short contracts and higher costs, is unsustainable and unsuitable for those families for whom life and income is already unpredictable.

Despite calls from homeless charity Shelter on the Government to act and tackle “out of control house prices by building more affordable homes”, developments such as the Heygate continue to be given the green light by local authorities, with, in this case, just 25 per cent of the 3,000 new homes reportedly being set aside for social tenants – compared to the 1,200 predominantly socially-rented ones that sat there before – granted on the often unfulfilled promises by developers that those who cannot afford the extortionate price tags will be catered for.

And how is this bitter pill forced down? By such “feel good” fliers as the one that landed on my doormat this week. With the company, in cahoots with Southwark Council, having erased a major part of the area’s history in its annexation of the Heygate – it is fortunate in a way that the fliers invite us to “Share memories and explore history”, because at the rate the demolition has been carried out, memories are all that those residents who once lived here will have.

This is the extent of the historical preservation that is going on here, both in Elephant and Castle, and elsewhere around the country where social housing is having to make way for privately owned homes. It is a nostalgia that cannot exist in the form of the thousands of former residents still being allowed to live in – or return to – these areas, but instead a cosmetic and shallow brand of nostalgia that is confined to the street signs, neatly parcelled memories that carry none of the nuisance, expense or space that actual people or old buildings would occupy.

This sanitised nostalgia is just a superficial sop to people who have lost homes and communities. At the risk of romanticising, a man leaning on his balcony on the estate, reminiscing about the area in the ’70s, could justifiably be considered the preservation of “the rich culture and history of the area”. But now that the balcony has been reduced to rubble and the man has been moved to the likes of Sidcup or Slough, what is left? A developer-sponsored road name, and that is no consolation for the loss at all.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.