Delay to Stonehenge tunnel decision following new discoveries from Archaeologists
The U.K. government has decided to delay the decision on building a road tunnel close to Stonehenge.
Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps was due to announce on July 17 whether the U.K. government would OK a road-building plan that could have led to what one leading historian has called the “desecration” of Stonehenge, Britain’s most iconic ancient monument. However, after new archaeological discoveries were made in the area last month the decision has now been pushed back until November.
Shapps originally had to rule by tomorrow on an application by Highways England for consent to build a 1.8-mile road tunnel to reroute a trunk road away from the world-famous standing stones on Salisbury Plain, near Amesbury, Wiltshire. In a statement given to parliament by an underling on July 16 the decision has been pushed back by at least four months.
Following a six-month Development Consent Order Examination last year, the Planning Inspectorate sent its report and recommendation to Shapps in January and, by statute, he should have either approved or shelved the controversial scheme by July 17. Moving the decision to November makes it slightly more likely that the scheme will be shelved again.
Road to the sun
The government announced plans to bury the “road to the sun”—or, less prosaically, the A303—in 2017, although a “relief road” in one shape or another has been proposed at this location for at least 50 years. Previous plans were rejected for being too damaging to the World Heritage Site or if the proposed damage was removed almost entirely, too costly.
A bored tunnel would divert the road away from the stones, but, say, historians, it would damage other parts of what was once a much broader ritual landscape.
Delaying the final decision was made after archaeologists using high-tech, non-invasive imaging techniques revealed to an astonished world last month that the Neolithic peoples who constructed Stonehenge also dug a series of shafts aligned to form a circle spanning 1.2 miles in diameter, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge.
Co-principal investigator of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project Vincent Gaffney said in June: “This is an unprecedented find of major significance within the U.K.”
The University of Bradford professor added: “Key researchers on Stonehenge and its landscape have been taken aback by the scale of the structure and the fact that it hadn’t been discovered until now so close to Stonehenge.”
Building the tunnel would be an “act of monstrous vandalism” that would be hard to justify to generations to come, said Professor Gaffney.
Junior transport minister Andrew Stephenson MP today told parliament that “following notification of a recent archaeological find within the World Heritage Site, the deadline for the decision is to be further extended to 13 November 2020 to enable further consultation on and consideration of this matter.”
In addition to burrowing beneath the ritual landscape—which draws in tourists to Britain from around the world—the £1.6bn plan, should it ever get the go ahead, would be used to widen the A303 to “Expressway” standard. The tunnel is planned to have twin portals in deep dual-carriageway cuttings, and there will be junctions—described as “Expressway Interchange” and “Expressway Flyover”—on the scheme’s boundaries.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has said that it wants to “transform the route into an expressway, a new type of strategic road which is as safe and reliable as a motorway and where ‘mile-a-minute’ journeys are the norm.”
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has stated that the U.K. government’s project would adversely impact the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the location.
“The Stonehenge World Heritage Site [WHS] is one of the few place where you can see a special, sacred landscape developed over thousands of years,” Neolithic expert Mike Parker Pearson said in 2018.
“To tunnel beneath part of the WHS and gouge huge cuttings through the archaeologically sensitive ground for a 4-lane Expressway [would be] a disastrous decision by government,” added Professor Pearson.
£27 billion road building plan
The DfT released a plan to “decarbonize” transport on March 26. In a foreword, Grant Shapps said that “we will use our cars less.” However, earlier in the month the new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak claimed in his first budget speech that he was unveiling the “largest ever investment in English strategic roads” and would be pressing ahead with a £27 billion program of road building over the next five years.
That was then. This is now. The pandemic has called into question the need for more roads since many people could be working from home in the future, with predictions of reduced demand for car travel. Cover for a decision next year to scrap the Stonehenge tunnel could therefore come from the need to cut costs after the economic hit of the coronavirus lockdown.
Delaying the scheme has been welcomed by campaigners because pushing ahead with what many consider to be a historically-illiterate road-building scheme close to Stonehenge would, they say, be odd in the extreme, would shock people around the world—so-called “global Britain” trashing its most famous historic site isn’t a good look—and would likely to face massive protests long before the first diggers moved in.
In theory, building the tunnel could see the megalith-dotted landscape returned to chalkland pasture and improve amenities for cyclists and pedestrians, who currently find it almost impossible to use the perpetually busy A303. However, campaign groups argue that such access is likely to be watered down and that building the tunnel will not solve congestion and would increase car dependence.
Put out to grass
Since 1991, fifty-one “road improvement” proposals have been considered for the A303. The tunnel scheme was first proposed in 1994, and thrown out two years later as too costly. It reappeared in the government’s 2006 Road Program, and withdrawn the following year. The government reintroduced putative plans for a Stonehenge tunnel in 2014, and firmed them up in 2017.
Instead of majoring on the potential for improved views over Stonehenge, the Department for Transport’s 2017 announcement stressed the plans were “part of roads package to cut congestion in the south-west.”
In 2013, following work on a new visitor center, the A344 between Stonehenge Bottom and the megaliths was closed to all traffic and “grassed over.”
A Highways England video of the proposed new bypasses and the tunnel shows that the government plans to “de-trunk” the A303, which currently runs close to the megaliths, with the “old” road converted into use for non-motorised users.
The Department for Transport’s announcement for the scheme described it as the “A303 corridor,” code for the fact there will be more than just one road. Instead, it’s to become a “high quality, high performing route linking the M3 in the south-east and the M5 in the south-west.”
The Council for British Archaeology said in 2017 that there’s a “growing body of research suggesting that more radical approaches to transport policy, including a long term strategy to encourage a shift away from car-dependence, may well provide greater long-term sustainability than would any solution based on individual roadbuilding or improvement, and would welcome the opportunity to engage in discussions on this basis.”
The body stressed the international, multi-generational significance of the wider Stonehenge landscape: “Stonehenge should be seen not as a disembodied object but as a structure (one of the oldest in the world) with architectural attributes, and a critical element in a landscape of complex ritual sites. Its calculated location should be understood as embodying meaningful visibility, functional characteristics, an intended path of approach, an entrance, and much else. Decisions should flow from these insights.”
Chairman of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust, Andy Rhind-Tutt, described the tunnel plan as a “self-destructing time bomb,” which would “do nothing” for traffic problems in the area.
On one of his many YouTube videos protesting the plans, historian Tom Holland said:
“The Stonehenge Tunnel is not just a tunnel. The government’s plans involve road-building on a massive scale through Europe’s most archaeologically significant prehistoric landscape: the desecration of Britain’s most internationally celebrated World Heritage Site.”
Will Grant Shapps want to go down in history as the transport secretary who “descecrated” Britain’s most famous World Heritage Site? We’ll now to wait until November to find out.