The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) is a well-known champion of disabled people. I have a good deal of sympathy with the points that he made about discrimination against disabled people. Many disabled people live lives of great heroism in their attempts to carry on normally at home and at work. It is up to all of us to give them as much support as possible.
I wish to speak about planning laws and their impact on a country such as ours at this late stage of the 20th century. We sometimes forget that we are basically a small, overcrowded island. I represent the part known as mid-Warwickshire, which is the very heart of England. Yet it is only 100 miles from this Chamber. My comments inevitably sound parochial, but they refer to problems that are replicated in a hundred and one places throughout the United Kingdom.
There are considerable environmental pressures on all of us. Many greedy developers, given the chance, would concrete over the whole of the west midlands or the south of England without any worry, if an enormous profit was to be made out of it. My county of Warwickshire is one of the smallest in the country. The latest structure plan decrees that there will be about 37,000 new houses in the county by the turn of the century, of which 9,000 will be in my constituency. That has given rise to a great deal of anxiety among residents. In addition, further industrial development is promised. We already have a surfeit of technology parks—the polite way of referring to industrial sites—and more are apparently planned. Many of my constituents believe that those plans are too expansive. I urge the Secretary of State for the Environment to limit the structure plan and I hope that he will take that on board. I and many of my constituents have been in correspondence with him.
With the advent of the M40—which will come on stream between Birmingham and London as early as next month—my constituency will be between two motorways. On the other side we have the M1. Our communications makes us an extremely desirable area. Like the rest of the country we need housing and jobs. There are constant references to that need in the House. But jobs and houses should not be to the exclusion of everything else. When green areas are finally breached, they have gone for ever. There is no way of getting them back.
The quality of life is not merely the provision of reasonable accommodation for everyone. The environment in which one lives is also of paramount importance. Compared with that of many countries, our environment is still unique. It is green and pleasant and it attracts many people. What is why so many people from abroad wish to retire here.
Another threat to which the Department of the Environment should address itself is that of mineral extraction. It is linked to what I have already said about planning. In Britain we have strong laws which demand that there should be sand and gravel extraction and that counties should maintain their quotas. I submit that the quotas and the law are in urgent need of drastic revision. Wide areas of desirable countryside are being torn up for sand and gravel. Currently there are three sites in my constituency. The landscape will be severely scarred for many years as a result of the operations.
Surveys carried out throughout the county of Warwickshire reveal a veritable "sea" of sand and gravel deposits, the extraction of which will threaten the entire county with environmental hazards for decades to come. The stipulated quotas are unrealistic and need revision. More sand and gravel should be imported into Britain and a better system should be established to move it round the country from extraction sites where the environment is not an issue. We cannot continue despoiling the best parts of the country purely to extract sand and gravel.
My third point about planning is that the Department of the Environment needs to revise its overall planning policies, particularly in crowded and desirable areas such as the one which I am fortunate enough to represent. In a recent local planning dispute, I sided with the residents, but they were overruled by the district council. There are no politics in my point because it is a Conservative council. The chief officer of the council subsequently wrote to me stating:
Planning committees are faced with the situation that planning legislation has made it clear that there is a presumption in favour of granting planning applications, unless there are planning reasons why applications should not be granted.
That was not terribly well put, but we get the message. In other words, he says that the objectors are guilty until they
can prove themselves innocent. The assumption is against them right from the start. Unless they have a very good case, they will lose. Many of us have not taken that on board sufficiently. As we are all aware, planning applications arrive at the offices of our councils every day. It is just not good enough.
Every developer has an automatic right of appeal if he is turned down by a local authority, and frequently he has the decision reversed. Over the years, his persistence is often relentless. He comes back time and again, the residents are harassed and eventually the local council gives in. Yet when the decision goes against the local residents, they have no right of appeal. I have believed for a long time that in specific circumstances a right of appeal should be open to the individual, particularly in areas where there may be considerable changes.
Unless we attend to the matters that I have mentioned and seek to obtain a genuine balance, future generations will look upon us as philistines who ruined a uniquely pleasant land and made it into an ugly and dreary one. These matters affect every hon. Member, and we must constantly and vigilantly press them with the Department of the Environment.