Stonehenge A303 road tunnel approved after years-long battle, prompting fury

Plan for world heritage site condemned as ‘absolutely monstrous scheme’ and ‘tragedy for globally recognisable icon’

Laura Sharman,Jane Dalton
Friday 14 July 2023 22:28 BST
Related: Thousands mark Summer solstice in an annual celebration at Stonehenge in June

Plans to construct a £1.7bn road tunnel near Stonehenge have been approved following a years-long battle to protect the monument, prompting fury by campaigners.

Transport secretary Mark Harper has granted a development consent order (DCO) to build the two-mile passage near the Unesco world heritage site in Wiltshire.

In a 64-page letter granting fresh approval, the Department for Transport said Mr Harper was satisfied that the project’s “harm on spatial, visual relations and settings is less than substantial and should be weighed against the public benefits”.

Historic England said moving the road would enhance the site.

But experts had previously warned such a project could cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the area, and objectors reacted with fury.

Historian and campaigner Tom Holland, part of a group that took legal action to try to stop the tunnel, said it was an “absolutely monstrous scheme” that was a tragedy for a globally recognisable icon.

He cited the planning inspectorate’s comments that the plans would “introduce a greater physical change to the Stonehenge landscape than had occurred in its 6,000 years as a place of widely acknowledged human significance”.

“Even by the cool standards of planning authorities I think this ranks as a grotesquely expensive white elephant,” he told Radio 4’s PM, adding that the £2bn–£2.5bn scheme would save an estimated 4.8 seconds per mile on a 100-mile journey.

Plans involve overhauling eight miles of the A303, pictured here, including digging the two-mile tunnel (PA Archive)

“If Britain decides it can ignore the obligations by accepting the [Unesco} award, it sets a terrible example for other countries that may be itching to do what the British government is doing here. It is a national tragedy, a national disgrace, but also an international tragedy,” he said.

A DCO previously issued for the project on the A303 was quashed by the High Court in July 2021 amid concern about the environmental impact on the monument.

At that time, plans were halted and the monument was declared “safe” from the threat of “irreversible harm”. It followed a year of campaigning against the scheme by Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS).

The plans now given the green light involve overhauling eight miles of the A303, including digging the two-mile tunnel. However, legal routes remain available for people to challenge the decision.

The A303 is a congestion hot spot, with drivers heading to and from the southwest during peak holiday periods often becoming stuck in long queues.

Highways England hopes the underpass will ease traffic and reduce journey times on the road, which runs from southwest England to London.

In November 2020, the transport secretary at the time, Grant Shapps, gave the go-ahead to the project despite advice from Planning Inspectorate officials that it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the area.

The SSWHS alliance successfully challenged his decision in the High Court the following year.

Transport secretary Mark Harper has approved the plan (PA Wire)

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “While users of the A303 might be encouraged by today’s decision, it feels like they’ll still be able to enjoy the current view of the stones from the road for quite some time to come. Since 1991 there have been dozens of different proposals for removing traffic from the Stonehenge site.”

The site, together with the stone circle in nearby Avebury, was declared by Unesco to be a world heritage site of outstanding universal value in 1986.

University of Buckingham archaeologist Professor David Jacques, who has led digs at nearby Blickmead for a decade, previously commented that the tunnel would “clearly compromise” the historical value of the site.

He added: “The Stonehenge world heritage site landscape is unutterably precious and you tamper with it at your peril – you cannot make it come back.”

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