A brief response this time to a letter in last week’s Luton on Sunday newspaper. The letters to the Editor usually have one or two gems* among them, and this week’s highlight was an intriguing missive by a Mr Ron Turvey of Stanmore Crescent, in which he boldly declares that we have too many people in Luton, and that ‘Luton is full’.
For some reason this brings to mind a wonderful Candid Camera sketch I once saw on TV (sadly, I can’t find a copy of the clip anywhere), dating, I guess, from the 1960s. The prank featured a makeshift roadblock placed unconvincingly across a small country road, with a sign that read, ‘LINCOLNSHIRE CLOSED’, and the camera focused on the ensuing confusion of a number of elderly rustics, turned sadly away from the border.
Mr Turvey’s point seems to be that Luton’s town planners are wrong to encourage the building of more houses while they do not address Luton’s infrastructural weaknesses; as he puts it: ‘we’re short of doctors, dentists, schools, car parks, roads and jobs’:
The answer to having too many people is not too create even more accommodation because that will only attract even more people and in turn lead to even more strain on the infrastructure and so on, ad infinitum.
No more housing. No more people. At least until the infrastructure has caught up.
While I can’t really comment on the adequacy or otherwise of the number of Luton dentists, I agree that Mr Turvey has a point. Luton is already a far larger town than people tend to realise (at last count, over 200k residents), and it is clear that the town’s infrastructure (taking Luton’s retail centre as the most visible example) falls short of an ideal. It has not been without good cause that attempts have been made to win city status for Luton: in the most recent attempt, in 2012, Luton was passed over inexplicably in favour of places such as St Asaph, population 3,400.
While I understand that city status is not simply ‘awarded’ (if it is an award) on the basis of population alone, the sheer wealth of history, diversity and industry with which the town is associated makes for a very compelling case. Luton may not be the UK’s prettiest town, but it is nonetheless a town with deep character and a crucible of a future UK that will not be the same as the past, but which is not radically discontinuous with it, either.
What do I mean? I refer, of course, to the long history of migration and immigration that is such a distinctive feature of the history of the British Isles, and Luton as a particular example of that in the 20th century. Because, for Ron Turvey, Luton is closed, especially if you are an immigrant:
Then there should be an embargo on any more immigrants coming here.
What Mr Turvey (whose surname, I note in passing, may be descended from the decidedly un-English Turville-la-Champagne region of Normandy and an earlier generation of marauding immigrants) seems not to realise is that, really, we’re all immigrants here in Luton, whether Irish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African, Caribbean, Polish or Lithuanian. Or, indeed, British.
In my case, for example: my family spent time in Luton in the 1960s; we returned in the 1980s for a few years; I returned by myself in 2006; my non-Lutonian interludes spent in Northampton, Cambridge, Brighton; Australia. I’m as apparently white British as it’s possible to be, but I have an unusual surname which (I’ve been told) may have a very distant French heritage, and an unusual face which speaks of a possibly Anglo-Indian heritage, from the days of British colonialism. I wonder whether even I would finally pass muster to encroach on Luton’s borders, were I not already here, and rather deeply installed.
Luton is a town of immigration, of people arriving, and leaving, and passing through, in very much the way of all prospering towns and cities (and Luton will be a city one day; of that, I am in no doubt). The hallmark of a city is precisely is busy-ness, its bustle; the alarming permeability of its borders. Great world cities are not full; they do not declare themselves, like the little Lincolnshire country road of the Candid Camera sketch, ‘closed’.
People come from all around the world here to study, at the University of Bedfordshire; others fly in and out of Luton airport: British holidaymakers leaving our chilly isles to descend as foreigners en masse in warmer climes; business people and economic migrants of all kinds coming and going between Luton, and London, and the European mainland. We are deeply fortunate to attract so many people to, and through, our humble town, and I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Turvey that we need improvements in the town’s infrastructure. In my view, it is rather our failing that not more people stay.
* My favourite is the regular contributor who typically declares that one or other cultural initiative is a ruse by the European Union to foist ‘cultural Marxism’ on a beleaguered right-wing populace.