Stonehenge road tunnel plans approved by transport secretary
Plans for a controversial road tunnel at Stonehenge have been approved by the government.
The transport secretary, Mark Harper, has granted a development consent order for a scheme to widen roads and dig a two-mile tunnel near the ancient site. The project, which was initially costed at £1.7bn, is designed to speed up journey times on the A303, a major link to south-west England.
The tunnel was approved in 2020 by the then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, in defiance of the planning inspectors’ recommendations. But his order was overturned by the high court a year later amid concern about the environmental impact on the Unesco world heritage site.
Planning inspectors said the road works would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the site of the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire. About eight miles of road will be rebuilt, including the new tunnel.
Harper has approved, with slight modifications, the same scheme, after holding further consultations. In the 64-page letter outlining his decision, the Department for Transport said Harper was satisfied that the project’s “harm on spatial, visual relations and settings” was “less than substantial and should be weighed against the public benefits”.
An alliance including archaeologists, environmental groups and druids, the Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site campaign (SSWHS), successfully brought the last legal challenge and were seeking legal opinion on whether to pursue another judicial review. The high court ruled in 2021 that Shapps had acted “irrationally and unlawfully”, but National Highways has continued with preparatory works since then.
National Highways argues that the A303, a key route between Devon and Cornwall from London and the south-east, is “a daily struggle for many” and is frequently congested with queues on the single-carriageway around Stonehenge, where motorists slow to view the ancient stones.
The scheme has long divided opinion, even among conservationists. Some groups, such as Historic England, argue that moving the road would enhance the site, while many others oppose the proposals.
In response to Harper’s consent, the historian Tom Holland, the president of the Stonehenge alliance, tweeted: “At the best of times this would be a grotesque decision, but at a time when the country is faced with so many bills, such a financial shortfall, this desecration of a world heritage site is the height of folly – an act of vandalism that shames Britain.”
Rebecca Lush, a campaigner at the Transport Action Network, said: “National Highways admit the scheme would increase carbon emissions by 2.5m tonnes over its lifetime at a time when we need to rapidly reduce emissions. This decision flies in the face of the evidence on climate change and the recommendations of the climate change committee, and will devastate the world heritage site.”
The decision is unlikely to see construction start soon. Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, said: “The likelihood must be that objectors will already be poring over the secretary of state’s lengthy and detailed decision letter looking for grounds on which to launch another legal challenge.
“Quite apart from the risk of further legal delays, the next hurdle for the project is getting the funding in place to proceed.”
The DfT said it would not comment further during a six-week review period.
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