Stonehenge tunnel: Government approves controversial bypass near ancient site

Decision goes against recommendations of planning officials and is opposed by environmentalists and archaeologists 

Samuel Osborne
Thursday 12 November 2020 16:46 GMT
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Stonehenge at dawn, near Amesbury, Wiltshire
Stonehenge at dawn, near Amesbury, Wiltshire (REUTERS/Toby Melville)
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The government has given the go-ahead for a controversial plan to dig a road tunnel near Stonehenge.

The decision, made by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was announced in a written statement to the Commons by the transport minister, Andrew Stephenson.

It goes against the recommendations of planning officials, who have warned it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the world heritage site.

The proposed tunnel and flyover close to Blick Mead is intended to ease congestion on the A303.

Highways England said its two-mile tunnel will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site and also cut journey times.

However, some environmentalists and archaeologists have warned the tunnel could destroy a “unique” site featuring traces of humans living as far back as the last Ice Age.

In June, a team of archaeologists discovered a ring of at least 20 large shafts within the World Heritage Site, a short distance from the stones.

Highways England said the latest archaeological finds were “well outside the scheme boundary” and no closer than 500 metres from the planned road upgrade.

The project is classified as nationally significant, meaning a Development Consent Order is required for it to go ahead.

The Planning Inspectorate, an executive agency of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, recommended the transport secretary withhold consent because the project would substantially and permanently harm the integrity of the World Heritage site.

In a report to Mr Shapps, the officials said that permanent, irreversible harm, critical to the outstanding universal value of the site, would occur, “affecting not only our own, but future generations”.

The Department for Transport wrote to Highways England stating that: "The secretary of state is satisfied that, on balance, the case for the development together with the other benefits identified outweigh any harm."

Highways England chief executive Jim O'Sullivan said: "This transformational scheme will return the Stonehenge landscape towards its original setting and will improve journey times for everyone who travels to and from the southwest."

Project director Derek Parody said: "It is a scheme objective to conserve and enhance the World Heritage site and this is being achieved through close collaborative working with heritage groups, including English Heritage, National Trust, Historic England and the independent A303 Scientific Committee."

Sarah Richards, the Planning Inspectorate’s chief executive, said: “There has been a great deal of public interest in this project.

"A major priority for us over the course of the examination was to ensure that communities who might be affected by this proposal had the opportunity to put forward their views.

"As always, the Examining Authority gave careful consideration to these before reaching its conclusion.”

Preparatory work is due to begin in spring next year, with the five-year construction phase expected to start by 2023, meaning the tunnel is likely to open one year later than initially planned.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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