To tunnel or not to tunnel? Government grants permission for Stonehenge tunnel bypass

Posted on: November 23, 2020 by

On Thursday 12 November 2020, Secretary of State for Transport (SoS) Grant Shapps issued a letter granting permission for the construction of a dual carriageway two mile long tunnel that will reroute the existing A303 south of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge (Image credit: garethwiscombe CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The scheme is estimated to cost £1.7 billion. This road is the main link between south-east and south-west England and as such is subject to many traffic jams and is not suitable for the amount of traffic using it. The issue of traffic has been an ongoing discussion dating back to 1991 when the first proposals were submitted. Various options have been put forward including bypasses north and/or south of the World Heritage Site (WHS) in which Stonehenge is located as well as the current tunnel scheme.

This round of debate began in 2018 when the current proposal was submitted by Highways England to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS). Following a consultation a PINS panel began to deliberate the merits of the scheme based on the various pieces of evidence put forward and their recommendation and report were sent to the Secretary of State for Transport in January of this year (these previous steps have been covered by the IAL here). The contents of the report and the PINS recommendation were not made public until last week when Shapps announced the government’s decision.

The report from PINS concluded that the scheme would result in “substantial harm” to the World Heritage Site and therefore recommended not granting permission to the scheme. The planning framework governing large infrastructure schemes such as this one is the national policy statement for national networks (NPSNN), and it sets out how the Secretary of State should consider various factors when determining whether to give consent or not. When considering harm to a designated asset such as a WHS paragraph 5.131 requires great weight be given to the conservation of a designated asset. Substantial harm or loss of a designated asset should be wholly exceptional. Furthermore, paragraph 5.133 requires the SoS to refuse consent unless it can be demonstrated that the substantial harm or loss of significance is necessary in order to deliver substantial public benefits that outweigh that loss or harm.

The PINS determined that the public benefit of the improved road was not enough to outweigh the substantial harm. Additionally, the site has outstanding universal value and this would be seriously impacted by the scheme.

On the other hand, the SoS stated that those in favour of the scheme did not view the harm as substantial, instead they highlight that by removing the visual and aural impacts of the existing road will help return the whole area to a landscape more in keeping with the original prehistoric landscape.

There is no doubt that the current situation is not ideal. However, the construction of the tunnel will result in the loss of an enormous amount of archaeological evidence.

Archaeology is its own paradox – excavations are destructive by their very nature, however we can only learn more about the past by undertaking excavations. This is why within developer-funded archaeology, preservation in situ is considered to be the best possible option, and research led excavations are undertaken with almost no time restrictions and are led by distinct research questions established to explore specific aspects of the archaeological record.

Stonehenge sits within a much wider prehistoric landscape made up of known archaeological monuments and features, but there is an equally large number of unknown and associated archaeological features. While Stonehenge is Neolithic in date, its importance and role within the landscape and past peoples’ memories did not end with the transition into later epochs. Its role and importance evolved and changed, most likely becoming a location marker within the landscape for millennia. It was a fascination to JMW Turner and other artists for example as well as countless antiquaries. A network of paths and trackways will have likely crossed the landscape around Stonehenge long before the invention of cars. Historic Ordnance Survey maps show that trackways following the existing route of the A303 were already present in the later part of the 19thcentury. As such, Stonehenge and its landscape has been a feature of travel for hundreds of thousands of people, and the current road allows it to have a place in the landscape memories of people today.

Satellite view of the World Heritage Site and the A303 highway marked in yellow (via GoogleMaps)

The government’s decision to allow the scheme to go ahead raises another issue. The classification of Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape as a WHS comes from the United Kingdom being a signatory to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972, which the UK ratified in 1984 and Stonehenge was included on the list in 1986. Allowing such a large infrastructure project which will cause such harm to the site goes against the principle of the convention.

During the consultations prior to 2018 UNESCO advised against this current scheme due to the damage it would cause. Therefore the government has decided to breach its obligation under an international convention. Stonehenge and its landscape is not just important to the past of the UK, but to all of humanity, hence its classification as a WHS. This is of course not the first time a nation has decided to breach such an obligation, the list of incidences is unfortunately too long to comment on here, but also in the headlines at the moment is the attacks on cultural monuments in the Armenia/Azerbaijani conflict, with both countries being signatories to several of the UNESCO conventions dealing with the protection of cultural heritage. So how do we deal with ensuring that nations respect their obligations under these conventions?

In the past, international pressure and outcry has not always worked. When the Taliban declared they would destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas, the international response prompted the Taliban to state how they found it interesting that this resulted in criticism from other nations, whereas the level of poverty within Afghanistan had not attracted the same level of international criticism. How does international peer pressure work alongside the notion that we are dealing with a nation’s behaviour within its own boundaries? Can we interfere? The conventions are based on the principle that cultural heritage belongs to all, but how does this work with national boundaries?

Thankfully, the planning and judicial system within the UK allows for this decision to be challenged. Opposers to the scheme can file an application for judicial review of the decision. This must be submitted within six weeks of the decision. Both national and international eyes will closely follow the next steps.