Luton has overtaken Brighton and Hove in the race to become Britain's newest city.

We've all heard the phrase As Mad as a Hatter. It originates in Luton, once the capital of Britain's hat-making industry. Unfortunately, the workers came into contact with excess amounts of highly-poisonous mercury during the process and it turned many of them a bit odd.

It is now feared the victims are placing big money on Luton becoming Britain's next city. On Tuesday we reported how Brighton and Hove have been pushed from their spot as the bookies' favourite to win city status.

At odds of 4-1, Brighton and Hove (pop 250,000) was head and shoulders above the other 38 towns competing for the coveted title of Millennium City. But several large bets of up to £1,000 placed by locals in Luton have now put the Bedfordshire town (pop 181,000) as evens favourite to win.

Yet its only claim to fame is an old Campari advert starring Cockney actress Lorraine "Nice 'ere innit?" Chase, who put Luton Airport on the map. But what else does Luton have to offer except an airport, which caters for 5.2 million passengers a year compared with Gatwick's 30 million?

Well, er, not a lot actually. Most people bypass it, preferring to stick to the M1. Those who do approach from the South are struck by the grim ugliness of the Vauxhall Vectra factory, which employs 3,500 people. It's a huge sprawling site, nicely landscaped with electricity sub-stations.

The town centre is dominated by the Arndale Centre, a massive indoor shopping complex built on top of the historic heart of Luton. It is late Sixties, early Seventies architecture at its very worst, replacing quaint Victorian streets which might have given Brighton's North Laine a run for its money had they survived the bulldozers.

But you can at least get a good view of the medieval St Mary's Church, the only building of note in the town centre, from the shopping centre's multi-storey car park opposite. The people buried in the churchyard must be turning in their graves at what has been done to their poor old town.

St Mary's is the largest church in Bedfordshire, which in turn is the smallest county in England. But fair play to the parishioners, the church is a lot better maintained than St Peter's in Brighton. However, maybe that's because it is the only building in Luton that's actually worth preserving.

At least it hasn't gone the same way as the old town hall, burned to the ground by a rioting mob on "Peace Day" in July 1919. But even their contribution to Luton's architectural demise is nothing compared to the planners who tore the town to bits.

At the tourist information centre, there were brochures advertising short breaks in Birmingham and trips to Darlington and Cleethorpes. Asked if anybody famous came from Luton, a woman behind the counter said: "Paul whatshisname, you know, the singer who sang Wherever I lay My Hat. Paul, er, Paul Young, that's it, and the bloke from The Bill, Simon somebody."

She forgot to mention comedian Eric Morecambe, Luton Town FC's best-known fan and Charles Bronson, Britain's most dangerous prisoner. And a poet by the name of John Hegley, the subject of a website which charmingly states: "There's an awful lot going on in Luton. And he's not just talking about tyre-slashing and drug busts."

Then, with impeccable timing, in walked Tajammul Iqbal, 50, from Luton, who was booking a family summer holiday in Brighton. Asked what it was like living in Luton, he paused for what seemed like an eternity before responding with an indifferent "So, so", adding: "The streets could be cleaner."

Jack and Hilda Ward, 82 and 78 respectively, have lived in Luton all their lives and both agreed that the town has deteriorated. Hilda, speaking in the shadow of the featureless Arndale Centre, said: "There is no character anymore." And it was hard to disagree. The nearest beach is probably at Southend, although there is a nightclub called The Beach, advertised as "Luton's number one nightspot".

It is painted in garish red and white, probably the brightest sight you will see in town apart from the tacky flight of pink plastic flamingos hanging from the Arndale Centre's roof.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. We saw no beggars, there were very few empty shops in the main shopping streets and their football team is better than ours. Yet Luton is only 30-odd miles from London, well inside the commuter belt, so one would expect house prices to be going through the roof.

But you can pick up a three bed semi for £71,500, a Victorian three-bed terrace for £43,000 and a one-bed flat for just £27,995.

That's chicken feed compared with Brighton and Hove, which speaks volumes about which town is The Place To Be.

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.