EARLY IN 1989, Shirley Barratt and her husband, Paul, drove north up the M1 to look for a house. They were feeling panicky. Even the most nondescript semi in London had risen beyond their means, and they were afraid that they would miss out altogether on getting a place.

They turned off at Junction 10 into Luton. The first estate they looked at was dominated by the Vauxhall motor works, with the M1 in place of a back garden. Eddies of identical redbrick terraces surrounded them. 'I wept,' says Shirley. 'I couldn't live there. I thought Luton was horrible.'

So they got back into the car and went on to Junction 12, to the village of Toddington, just on the edge of town, where they saw a neat little Wimpey house. It was priced at pounds 72,000, and backed on to fields. They bought it at once, not daring to sneeze in case it went up another pounds 1,000. The house was a one-down, two-up. It was 25ft long by 13ft wide.

A little more than three years later, in July last year, Paul was made redundant. At about the same time they realised that the value of their house had plummeted to pounds 48,000 - pounds 20,000 less than their mortgage.

Shirley is pretty and full of smiles, but her voice trembles when she mentions children. She keeps laughing, as if what she is saying must be a bad joke. 'The big thing is that a lot of people moved here about that time and now it is three or four years on and they all want families.' She laughs again. 'But the women can't afford to give up work because of the mortgage repayments.

'I want a baby too,' she says. 'I'm 35 years old. But I can't, because of the situation. I might miss out on having a family altogether soon.' She says she feels as if she has an illness for which there is no cure.

Paul is depressed. 'You get these programmes where they show you where old miners used to live, with tin baths in front of the fire, in their two-up two-downs. Well, we are no better off now. We are still trapped in little boxes.' And he is bitter. 'My mortgage is only a glorified rent with a debt at the end of it.' He is a trained hairdresser and wants to start his own business: 'But who on earth would open a salon in Luton?'

The recession may be drawing to a close in many parts of the country, but to these homeowners in Luton the recovery looks as if it is leaving them behind.

Negative equity hangs heavier here than anywhere in the country; Newcastle University reported earlier this year that 72 per cent of the people who bought between 1988 and 1991 in Luton South now have negative equity, and 54 per cent in Luton North. While other people in other towns may be finding it easier to sell their houses, there is a forgotten generation trapped, like the Barratts, possibly for years to come.

Luton, which feels like a small, gruff Midlands town misplaced in the South, was more sensitive to the Eighties boom than other places. Its estate agents deliberately targeted young London couples, offering new houses at lower prices, just up the M1 from the capital. It became the safety valve to London's overheated property market.

Some people struggle to dig themselves out. Wendy Bain and her husband, David, a postman, bought their one-bedroom flat for pounds 52,000. When I met them in February, their first baby was due in three months and they had plans. They thought that they might manage to sell the flat for between pounds 25,000 and pounds 30,000, get a three-bedroom semi for the same amount, and take out a 10-year loan to repay the pounds 20,000 debt.

Last week they brought their newborn son home to the same flat, to sleep in a cot beside their bed. David has been made redundant and is struggling to meet the mortgage repayments. He believes their negative equity has grown to pounds 25,000. 'On top of that we have a loan now, to pay for work done to get rid of damp coming through the walls. We had to stop that before the baby came,' he says. 'I don't know if the recession is over. I'm just an ordinary person and for me there's always been a recession.'

Luton used to be a sort of joke town, with an airport made famous by the cockney tones of Lorraine Chase. It didn't matter if we made fun of it because it was successful. It made cars, vacuum cleaners, ball- bearings. But no longer.

There is a real sense of unease in the town. The great concrete Arndale shopping centre, which replaced the old town heart in the Seventies, has become the territory of men. The unemployed like to congregate on the benches. The older ones sit in threes and fours, cross-legged, smoking, while the teenagers, leather jacketed, prance up and down the mall or gather in gangs.

Everyone says it's no place to be after dark. Local reporters from nearby sleepy towns such as St Albans and Letchworth ache to work in Luton, where they can chase any number of muggings, rapes and car-jackings. The leader of the council's Liberal group, David Franks, blames the fall- out from Thatcherism. 'We are lumbered with more victims of Thatcher than any other town.'

Local councillors, community workers, industrialists and businessmen held a summit meeting at the beginning of the year to discuss what has become known locally as The Luton Problem, to devise a strategy to take them into the next century, and to stop the town being left behind by the recovery.

The council's new ruling Labour group commissioned six months' research from the Centre for Local Economic Studies. It showed that in parts of the town, unemployment reaches 30 per cent, and that among ethnic minority groups it is as high as 60-70 per cent. Mike Emmerich, who worked on the project, found racial tension adding to the strain of the job shortage. Vauxhall, which employed 21,000 workers in 1984, now has a Japanese-style lean workforce of around 10,700.

'The 'Stanis have all the jobs,' was a common complaint he heard from local whites. 'You can't get a white taxi-driver round here any more,' said one company executive.

Old Conservative councillors remember the town bursting with energy in the Fifties and Sixties. The airport was the third busiest in the country, handling more than three million package holiday-makers a year. But people don't take so many package holidays now, and Luton is left with a daily sprinkling of charter flights. There are grand plans to expand, but the cost will be pounds 425m. The town's main hope is pinned to its application to the Government, made along with a handful of other traditionally prosperous southern areas, for assisted area status.

The current Labour leader of the council, Roy Davis, talks like a distraught parent wondering at the behaviour of a recalcitrant teenager. 'I look back over 10 years to where things started to go wrong,' he says. 'We couldn't possibly have known then where we would be now. Luton suffers from every problem that everyone else in the South-East has, but we have it worse.'

In the predominantly Asian streets of the Biscot area the houses are beginning to disintegrate. Windows go unmended, shops are boarded up, the young come out at dusk to drink on the church steps. Mobeen Qureshi, who is secretary of the Pakistan Kashmir Welfare Association and has lived in the town for 30 years, feels that the recession has left behind it a new kind of racism. 'It is not open like it was in the Seventies. Then it was verbal or physical abuse. This is worse. It is affecting people more. It deprives them of jobs.'

Ill-temper and violence are always lurking. A trivial argument over car parking can erupt into an ugly scene without any warning at all. A black woman with a car full of children, her face embroidered with silver stars, starts yelling at a middle-aged white man who has blocked her into a cul- de-sac. He sits in his car laughing. The two cars manoeuvre, almost crash, then move off, and the bystanders get on with their shopping.

Tension in the streets here erupted last summer, as it did in other English towns. 'It wasn't too bad,' says a police spokesman. 'It only involved a small group. A petrol bomb was thrown, there were some arrests.' This summer the same problems are still there. Philip Hoskins, chief executive of the Luton Chamber of Commerce, says the town is 'a powder keg'.

Diana McMahon, chairman of the Bedfordshire Training and Enterprise Council, couldn't express her fears more forcefully. 'Can we keep the lid on? One spark could ignite a crisis in the town. That might take us 10 years to recover from. We must deal with the flashpoints immediately or we will never regenerate.'

The car-parking duel took place outside a small parade of shops in St Dominic's Square, a few yards from an off-licence that was held up at gunpoint last autumn. These are the local shops for Clare and Stephen Bennett, who live nearby with their year-old baby, Laura. They too were attracted to Luton by the house prices, but the sense of unease in the town now troubles them.

But, like so many others, they can't move. They paid pounds 63,000 for their house in 1989; today it is worth pounds 46,000. Repayments for this two-up- two-down on a modern estate started at a hefty pounds 900 a month. Since Clare had her child they have been struggling to meet the repayments, and they have had to ask the building society to extend their borrowing to pounds 69,000. Like many others, they risk being beached by the recovery.

Clare Bennett would, frankly, rather be back in the Bronx, where she grew up. 'It has a lot of the same problems,' she says. 'But there are at least some bright spots there. There was a sense of community. Here, there aren't any bright spots at all.'

(Photograph omitted)