The Stonehenge Alliance, a group of non-governmental organizations and individuals seeking enhancements to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, has called for the A303 Stonehenge Expressway Scheme to be scrapped in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps.
In December 2018, we noted that the A303 is scheduled for redevelopment along its length, including the section that goes past Stonehenge. Plans suggested that the road should be diverted through a 1.8-mile tunnel under part of Salisbury Plain, hidden beneath a grassy mound, and this development was originally intended to start in the early 2020s.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling stated at the time that it would result in:
“Quicker journey times, reduced congestion and cleaner air [which] will benefit people locally and unlock growth in the tourism industry.”
It is certainly the case that the A303 – one of the main arterial roads from London to the South West of England – is frequently congested and bottle-necked. Although it is in places a fast road, it does not have the status of a motorway – not every stretch of the road is even a dual carriageway – and it suffers from an extremely high volume of traffic.
However, the £1.6 billion (US$2.1 billion) proposal for a tunnel was not universally popular.
An alteration of the solstice skyline, visible from the monument, was feared, and a longer tunnel of nearly 2 miles was suggested to alleviate this. We noted that there are also concerns about the stability of the Plain itself.
Stonehenge was built on chalk, and there have been suggestions that a tunnel could cause subsidence – even causing the monument itself to be rendered unstable, but certainly undermining the ancient landscape of Salisbury Plain, held to be almost as historically important as the monument itself. There is also a concern about the potential release of radon gas.
Funding for the tunnel was frozen in the 2018 Budget of then-chancellor Philip Hammond. Current Chancellor Sajid Javid has not yet allocated his reserved $88.7 (£80) billion pounds for infrastructure projects.
The recent letter to the Department of Transport highlights some of the above points as ongoing concerns. The letter to Grant Shapps mentions opposition to:
… the highly damaging A303 Stonehenge Expressway Scheme which is heavily criticised by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. The Scheme offers very poor value for money, and it would cause significant harm to the World Heritage Site, and poses a high risk in proposing to tunnel through weak Phosphatic Chalk. The unreliable nature of the … ground rock, along with unknown problems with groundwater, risks major delays in tunnelling and cost overruns – presumably to be borne by the public purse.
The Alliance also mentions concerns about the carbon imprint of the new road, which would – by definition – increase the volume of traffic.
The letter also asserts that the UK government be in breach of its International World Heritage Convention obligations and,
“there is also a strong possibility that Stonehenge’s World Heritage status would be withdrawn. Cultural vandalism on such a scale at this iconic heritage site would inevitably bring international disgrace.”
In conclusion, the letter says:
The scheme is very expensive, carries a high risk of unforeseen problems and cost overruns, would cost far more than it could ever realise in benefits and would cause significant damage to the World Heritage Site, possibly placing its UNESCO designation in jeopardy. Failure to provide a Strategic Environmental Assessment of upgrading the Stonehenge section along with other intended A303 upgrades has denied the public true understanding of the full impact of these schemes and, indeed, of more sustainable possible alternatives.
The letter comes ahead of the final decision on the Stonehenge tunnel, which is due to be made in the next 3 months. The Examining Authority issued a Recommendation Report to the Secretary of State on January 2, 2020, and the current deadline for the decision by the Secretary of State is April 2, 2020.
The Stonehenge Alliance is not the only organization that has been highlighting concerns.
The public hearing in relation to the project, which ran from April – October last year, also saw some opposition to the tunnel. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, professor of British Prehistory at University College London, claimed in June that artefacts “would be bulldozed without record or recovery by the proposed strategy…this is an unacceptable level of damage to the resources and loss of information about Stonehenge’s prehistoric past.”
Tony Robinson, presenter of BBC’s Time Team has described the tunnel as “the most brutal intrusion ever.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has also objected, saying that the massive construction project threatens Salisbury Plain’s population of stone-nesting curlews and potentially the reintroduction of the Great Bustard.
Moreover, the Financial Times reports that although Shapps supports the $2.22 (£2) billion project, the Treasury overall has exhibited concerns about its “value for money” and suggested that alternative routes to the west on the M4 and M5 already exist.
It remains to be seen whether, in the face of this diverse but united opposition, the Department of Transport will be able to push the project for the Stonehenge Tunnel through. What is the alternative, however?
There is also broad agreement that the A303 needs to be changed to cope with the increasing volume of traffic and the issues of congestion in villages along its length. But groups opposed to the project, including the Stonehenge Alliance, say that a longer tunnel could be an answer.
Archaeologist, Dr. Kate Fielden who works with the Alliance, says a tunnel of some 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) “must be the ultimate goal” and could be achieved given how much the government is already intending to spend on new roads. And the National Trust itself is broadly in favour of plans for a tunnel of some form, saying that such a scheme would “enhance and protect” the landscape.