The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Lemon Drizzle Cake at the Rainbow

A visit by a group of Still Green members on to the Rainbow Housing Cooperative on Saturday 22 September

That delicious home-made cake, savoured in the “common house” of the Rainbow Cooperative, should really have been topped by forty candles. For it was in 1978 that the first residents moved into their houses in Spencer Street, New Bradwell, after two years of negotiation, recruiting and preparation. Now it is home to a wide range of people of all ages, whose varying needs are met by the provision of amenities such as safe play areas, a barbecue spot, and by a neighbourly spirit that ensures that the old and frail are not neglected.

Our hosts on this visit were founder members of the cooperative (aka “The Street”), Sally, Matthew and Alan. We sat in the living-room area of Number 9, a compact space that was bright and welcoming, while still being functional. The common house (one of the 24 cottages owned by the cooperative) contains an office, laundry, workshop, deep freeze and greenhouse. Sally, Matthew and Alan were relaxed and expansive, but those early years must have demanded all their patience and dogged persistence: communal living is not without its pressures and frictions, and Sally did not gloss over them.

Spencer Street is all that remains of an area of terraced railway cottages, in the north of the city. It is pedestrianised, giving it a pleasantly old-fashioned feel. Bucking the dismal trend for concreting over front gardens to turn them into car parks, the tenants (there are no owner-occupiers here) have turned part of the original carriageway into a garden, narrowing the road to a broad path. This gives the street a character all its own, and enhances its communal quality. There is a green space at the back of both rows of houses.

Rainbow came into being near the start of the development of the Milton Keynes we know today. The Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) set about demolishing the railway cottages, but a preservation order was placed on Spencer Street.

A group of seven or eight people got together and bought the properties, honouring the tenancy agreements of those already living there, and committing to the formation of a cooperative. Rainbow was born. Prospective tenants, who for the most part find out about Rainbow through word of mouth or the Diggers & Dreamers website, are recruited by a process which entails their joining the coop and attending a number of meetings before they are selected by ballot. Feedback is given to unsuccessful applicants.

Conflict within the community is resolved in the same consensual manner. There are a number of subgroups dealing with issues such as maintenance, and regular meetings are held in the common house. A work-day is held monthly, to maintain the street.

In the course of our meeting, as Sally spoke, the image of one of those legendary serene waterfowl (ducks? swans?) kept bobbing up in my mind. I suspect there is a lot of frantic underwater paddling involved in keeping an experiment in communal living afloat, given that there is no outside landlord or management company to take responsibility; the rotas pinned to the wall testified to that element of self-sufficiency. I got the impression that some members of the community contribute more than others, but, as Sally pointed out, some people help out in ways that may not be so obvious. Anyway, she implied that if you obsess about who does – or doesn’t do – what, then maybe you yourself are unsuited to life in a cooperative.

But there are many compensations: growing up and growing old among friends; a sense of purpose and of achievement; a safe, pleasant environment. Then there are the two annual parties that Rainbow throws. No need for some jubilee or other national event to prompt Rainbow members to get out the bunting and the baking tins. And there’s so much to celebrate.

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