We’ve done it again. Eleven years ago, Luton topped the ‘Crap Towns’ list of the worst places in Britain. Now the town of my birth has come in at rock bottom in the RSA’s new Heritage Index, which ranks local areas by the strength of their heritage. As the RSA’s token Lutonian, it falls to me to offer something by way of explanation, apologia – and perhaps hope – for the town.
My favourite local excuse for Luton’s industrial decline in the twentieth century is that it was all JFK’s fault. Up until the middle of the century Luton was a thriving, industrious place with its signature industry based around the manufacture of hats. Then in the 1960s Kennedy and his wife Jackie – both dazzling, attractive, young and powerful – moved into the White House and re-set the standards of global fashion. Kennedy didn’t wear a hat. Everybody else immediately stopped buying hats, so the argument goes, and Luton lost its unique selling point over-night.
I’m not sure we can really blame Luton’s fortunes on The Kennedy Assassination (of the hat industry), but it’s certainly true to say that in many ways history hasn’t been kind to Luton in terms of preserving the town’s visible heritage. The hat industry that still informs a good deal of the Luton’s identity was largely a home-based cottage industry that didn’t leave behind many noted or listed buildings in comparison to some of the heavier industries in northern towns with their iconic mills and factories. Meanwhile the more modern manufacturing that also thrived in the town until the 1980s – Vauxhall and Bedford automobiles, chemicals and electronics – haven’t added much in the way of conventional architectural beauty to the town’s landscape either. The very presence of those advanced technical and light industries also attracted German bombing raids in the Second World War, contributing in no small part to the necessary modernist rebuilding of much of the town centre in the 1950s and ‘60s – an era that doesn’t always get a lot of love by the arbiters of good taste and architectural heritage.
You can almost imagine a different and more handsome town by looking at the gaps in the maps – Castle Street runs uphill to what was once a Norman motte and bailey castle, but is now the site of a Matalan discount store. The beautiful Victorian Carnegie Free Library was deemed unfit for purpose in 1962, demolished, and replaced with the more functional but less historically interesting Central Library, as well as much-needed commercial space for the rapidly-growing post-war population. On Peace Day in 1919 – intended as a celebration of the official end of the First World War – veterans protested against the unemployment and poor living conditions experienced by working class soldiers and, when a council officer tried to placate them with a message from the King, rioted and burned the historic old town hall to the ground. (A replacement was built at the same site some years later though, and is actually a not unattractive mix of neoclassical and art-deco styles itself).
Part of our problem in Luton, I think, is that much of what we think is important to the town’s identity isn’t acknowledged in traditional yardsticks of heritage. Nobody outside Luton seems to care very much when we tell them we have the UK’s smallest single-span suspension bridge. Those hat factories are still dotted all over the town but they just look like big houses to the untrained eye. People pour scorn on our underperforming football club in its tatty old stadium – but fans know that when 10,000 of us are squeezed into the ground under its corrugated iron roof, Kenilworth Road can really rock.
People in the town commemorate its social history in ways that don't necessarily leave behind tangible assets or activities that can be easily counted. Veteran journalist Geoff Cox has been sharing fascinating historic photographs of the town in his newspaper column and, more recently, Twitter feed, for years. Local sculptor and painter Frank Casey creates stirring artistic tributes to local heroes, such as Joe Gough who died fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The comic and poet John Hegley has made an art-form of the suburban pastoral in his much-loved lyrics about growing up in the town. And Luton Town Football Club – the first professional football team in the south of England - is 130 years old this year, and each week it publishes really smart match-day programmes based on historical designs from different years gone by.
Somewhat paradoxically, the future of heritage in Luton looks bright. Heritage is not just about the past – about old buildings and dusty museums – but is also about a community deciding what is important to its identity, and what should be celebrated about a place. The annual Luton International Carnival, from humble origins as a Victorian-themed celebration of the town’s centenary in 1976, is now the largest one-day carnival in Europe and the town is home to the impressive new UK Centre for Carnival Arts. Grassroots campaigns such as the yearly Community Awards and the council-backed Love Luton initiative focus on what’s best in the town and work to bring Luton’s diverse communities together, while the Bangladeshi Youth League celebrated its 35th anniversary last month and is embarking on a major heritage project exploring the history of community development in some of the town's most deprived areas. From being the number one Crap Town eleven years ago, Luton has more recently been judged one of the top ten best places to live in the country. It is now designated as one of Heritage Lottery’s priority development areas for new funding, meaning that there is a big opportunity for local projects to win funding to bring under-recognised Luton heritage to light. There is much to be optimistic about.
I was born in Luton and spent my early childhood there, and returned to live there again as a young adult. All of my extended family still live in the town. When I worked in Luton I met so many people working really hard to make the town a better place to live, and Lutonians are generally really proud of their patch. It can sometimes feel dispiriting – exhausting even – when the town so often gets mocked by outsiders; as well as the Crap Towns stuff, there are the inevitable impressions of some obscure 1970s TV advert featuring “Lu’on airpor’” that people do whenever you tell them where you’re from. And as well as being the butt of everyone’s jokes, more recently there has been a nastier edge to the anti-Luton sentiment and the town has become unfairly associated with terrorist and far-right activity - which certain national newspapers have exaggerated with savage glee.
The town’s disappointing position at the bottom of the RSA heritage index should not be taken in the spirit of yet more Luton-bashing. Instead, if like me you’re a Lutonian who’s a little bit stung by the ranking, it should be seen as a call to action. Luton actually does moderately well on the Index measures relating to publicly accessible stores of heritage, being in the top half nationally for museums and archives, though it scores lower on measures of heritage activity, natural heritage and green spaces, and - for reasons outlined above - industrial and built heritage. As the accompanying report to the Index recommends, you can help to boost the town’s position on the Index by visiting and supporting the local museums and using archives to look up local history or family genealogy. Volunteer investment to improve the town’s greener areas such as the neglected stretches of the river Lea would do the place a world of good – not just in terms of heritage but also for the environment, public health, and recreation. Traditionally, social history is underrated in considerations of heritage – for example I love that story about the radical Tommies burning down the town hall – but you can help to change that, for example by plotting sites of important social history on HistoryPin, the crowd-sourced online history map so that others can learn about the important historical sites. All places have heritage of course – but it’s equally important to consider what people do to share that heritage and make it relevant to the life and identity of a place.
Finally, let’s all be louder and prouder about Luton. The town has been knocked for too long; let people carry on doing their “Lu’on airpor’” impressions if it amuses them, but don’t tolerate them telling you that Luton’s a crap town. Over the years we’ve survived raids by both armies in the English Civil War, bombing campaigns from the Luftwaffe, an American President’s assault on our hat industry, and several successive relegations for the football club. We’ll survive the bottom-placed ranking in the Heritage Index too. We’ve got pluck, we’ve got pride, and we’ve got the smallest darn suspension bridge in the UK.
Lutonians unite, and support the town’s heritage!