Plans to construct a new road tunnel near Stonehenge are shrouded in uncertainty, after a court case ruled that transport secretary Grant Shapps acted unlawfully in his decision not to consider alternatives to the current blueprint and did not consider the potential damage to heritage assets.
At issue is the plan by Highways England to expand the congested A303 from a single lane highway to a dual carriageway. The plan involves taking the opportunity to rebuild the road as an underground route through a deep twin-bore tunnel of two miles in length, to the south of the existing road.
The road user benefits were obvious, as it would help ease traffic congestion on a major connection between the west country and the rest of southern England. However, there was also an apparent opportunity to transform the environment around the ancient monument itself, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
With the new tunnel being further from the stone circle than the current A303, all sight and sound of traffic removed from the vicinity, the road being replaced with a bridleway for walkers, cyclists and horse riders and the plan being backed by both the National Trust and Historic England, it might have been imagined the scheme would be widely welcomed.
The reality has been very different. Many archaeologists have claimed the site would be damaged by the project. The Planning Inspectorate concluded it would cause “irreversible damage” to the vicinity and campaign group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) successfully crowdfunded the High Court appeal against the decision by Mr Shapps to grant a development order.
Highways England expressed disappointment at the news. It has been working to gather support for the plan, with a dedicated mini-site featuring a fact checker page aimed at dispelling common claims about the site, in particular the suggestion that the tunnel would go directly under the stone circle.
After seeing the project hit this major roadblock, the organisation said: “We remain confident our project is the best solution to the ongoing issues along the A303 past Stonehenge” and noted it is now waiting to see how the Department of Transport responds.
Historic England called prospect of the tunnel being axed “a missed opportunity to remove the intrusive sight and sound of traffic past the iconic monument.”
By contrast, campaigners against the scheme were delighted. SSWHS director and acting chairman of the Stonehenge Alliance John Adams said: “The Stonehenge Alliance has campaigned from the start for a longer tunnel if a tunnel should be considered necessary. Ideally, such a tunnel would begin and end outside the World Heritage Site.”
However, he added, the decision should now be seen as a “wake-up” call for the government and he called for a complete review of roads policy with the aim of cutting traffic and reducing the need to build more highways.
Mr Adams’ second comment may be widely seen as impractical for rural Wiltshire, where public transport alternatives to driving are limited. But a longer tunnel may offer a solution that can overcome any future challenges.
However, this would inevitably bring some additional issues with it, starting with funding as the current £1.7 billion price tag would rise if tunnel boring machines had to dig further, taking more time and labour costs, as well as increasing the expense of adding the other elements like extra concreting, sealant and associated landscaping works.
A longer tunnel might also require a more sophisticated emergency response procedure, as any incident occurring beneath ground might be harder to reach from the surface because of the greater distance and potential barrier of stationary traffic involved.
However, if an extended underground section is to be built, that could be justified as it would still enable both the dualling of the A303 and the consequent reduction in congestion, as well as meeting the aim of removing the noise and fumes of the highway from the vicinity of Stonehenge.
If the Historic England description of the court ruling as a “missed opportunity” suggests it believes the fight is lost, that is clearly not the view of Highways England. At this point, moreover, the government has a number of options; it could appeal the court ruling or revise the plans instead of simply abandoning the scheme as SSWHS would like.
Whatever is decided, the arguments will rage on. The recent removal of World Heritage Status from Liverpool’s docklands by UNESCO will be cited by opponents as an example of what the ‘wrong’ sort of development can lead to.
Others, however, will argue that economic renewal of a deprived inner city area can hardly be compared to a plan that involves restoring peace and fresh air to the rural vicinity of a 5,000-year-old monument.
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