Last week, the 6 month examination into the dualling of the A303 through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site came to an end. No doubt to much relief for all concerned. Modern Examinations in Public are pretty staid affairs, with little chance for real cross-examination and scrutiny. Even keeping track of proceedings remotely was not made easy. Despite Highways England live streaming the Examination to their offices nearby, they couldn’t possibly organise this for the general public. Something that just about every local authority now does as a matter of course. Instead you had to wait several days before the audio only recordings were released by the Planning Inspectorate.
Inquiries have always been a David and Goliath battle between objectors and the Government machinery, but nowadays the tables are tipped even more strongly in favour of the development proceeding. Highways England with its lavishly (publicly) funded banks of consultants, who sit there day after day churning out, what is often obfuscation and misinformation, failing to answer questions or in some cases release important information, is hard to counter. The shear volume of paperwork for individuals and voluntary organisations can be overwhelming. The problem is that a written Examination process, as is now the rule, does not allow objectors to really show how the inspectors are sometimes being misled as the necessary continual ping pong probably sends them into a coma. Something needs to change, not least the huge imbalance in resources to allow the proper scrutiny of such important issues.
The Stonehenge Alliance and many other organisations and individuals have strongly objected to the proposals for the extensive harm they would cause not just to the World Heritage Site, but to the natural environment and for the impact on climate change. Much of this work has been done by volunteers, with the support of some expert witnesses, where funds or goodwill allowed. They have made a strong case against the road being built but whether this is listened to we will have to wait and see. The Panel of inspectors will now take 3 months to write up their report and the Secretary of State will then have 3 months to decide on the fate of Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
The tragedy is that the road has even got to the planning stage, given the international objections from UNESCO and having such a poor economic case, with only around 21 pence of benefit for every £1 spent. It should have been kicked out before it even started. The only way it got even close to recouping the money for its construction was through a rather dodgy heritage valuation survey. Ironically, when this survey was challenged Highways England said it wasn’t a necessary consideration for the Examination Panel, yet without it, their economic case lies in tatters.
For the system to have allowed this proposal to even get this far shows it is seriously flawed. If the scheme is approved it will demonstrate beyond doubt that it is broke and the huge contempt there is amongst some for safeguarding our nationally and internationally important environmental and heritage assets. Let’s hope we are proved wrong on but in the meantime, the next 6 months are going to be a nervous time for all concerned.