Stevens silent on Stonehenge site: Plan for pounds 15m visitors' centre scrapped

JOCELYN STEVENS, chairman of English Heritage, faces an embarrassing series of meetings today as he tries to explain an about-turn by the conservation body over its most important site, Stonehenge.

A leak to the Independent on Sunday revealed that seven years of planning and preparation for a new visitor centre, which have already cost pounds 500,000, are to be abandoned.

English Heritage's climbdown was to have been announced at a series of public briefings today. Mr Stevens declined to comment yesterday, preferring to wait for the planned announcement.

Last month the Commons Public Accounts Committee, a watchdog on public spending, criticised the lack of catering and visitor shops at Stonehenge, the most popular site run by English Heritage, visited by 700,000 people a year.

The committee's report said: 'We are particularly concerned that the position at Stonehenge could only be described as a national disgrace.' English Heritage accepted that criticism, but countered it by pointing to advanced plans for a pounds 15m visitors' centre at Larkhill, half a mile north of the stones.

Four months ago, English Heritage said Larkhill - which still remains its first choice - had been chosen 'following extensive and wide-ranging research'.

But today Mr Stevens is to announce that the Larkhill site is now only one of eight options being considered, and that consultation will begin again this week to find the most suitable.

Any alteration to the area around Stonehenge, which is surrounded by ancient remains, would be controversial. Larkhill was originally chosen after other sites had been considered. Half of the plans back on the table were rejected by a study group in the mid-1980s as inferior.

The Larkhill proposal was unpopular with local people because it meant closing the A344 which runs close to the stones in Wiltshire.

It was also opposed by the Ministry of Defence, which has an ammunition dump close to a planned access road, and by some archaeologists.

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