Stonehenge under threat

| 23rd June 2021 |

Image: CEllen

Plans for a major road widening and tunnel near Stonehenge have been approved by Grant Shapps despite determined opposition.

The famous view of the stones from the road, enjoyed by millions of travellers every year, would be lost.

The decision by Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, to proceed with the A303 Stonehenge road-widening scheme will be challenged in the High Court today.

The action is being led by Save Stonehenge WHS Ltd, a company set up by concerned individuals working together to protect the surroundings of the famous stones, which has been supported by as many as 3,000 donors to the legal costs.

The situation is deeply depressing for those who cherish this iconic symbol of our shared global heritage and value the knowledge that might yet be gained from the extraordinary landscape of monuments and sites within which it stands.

Planning

Many feel that the UK Government’s contempt for this heritage has been exposed, along with its blatant disregard of the scheme’s poor economic return.

Furthermore, the encouragement of carbon emissions generated by increased traffic and the manufacture of large quantities of concrete flies in the face of the UK’s legal commitment to address climate breakdown.

The road scheme involves some 2km of dual carriageways in deep cuttings leading to a twin-bore tunnel, all within the World Heritage Site, with massive highway interchanges on its boundaries.

The famous view of the stones from the road, enjoyed by millions of travellers every year, would be lost.

A panel of five senior planning inspectors have recommended the application is refused, following a six-month detailed examination of the project.

Ploughing

It warned of the “harm to the overall assembly of monuments, sites, and landscape through major excavations and civil engineering works, of a scale not seen before at Stonehenge".

It found that “irreversible harm would occur, affecting the criteria for which the . . . World Heritage Site was inscribed on the World Heritage List”. In the view of the panel members, “the aesthetic and spiritual damage would be profound and irreversible.”

Leading specialists in Stonehenge archaeology also condemn the scheme, which would destroy some 10 hectares of the World Heritage Site.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a prehistorian,  calculates that around half a million flint artefacts would be lost in ploughsoil machined off for road cuttings as Highways England can’t afford the time and expense to allow 100 percent sieving.

Such a loss is incalculable, for almost the only remaining evidence of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age settlement and domestic activity in the landscape lies within the soil, which is already disturbed by ploughing.

The famous view of the stones from the road, enjoyed by millions of travellers every year, would be lost.

Damaging

Furthermore, the topsoil would be used for landscaping after scheme construction, leaving diagnostic and chronological evidence broadcast and out of context.

The economics of the £2bn road scheme make no sense at all. A heritage contingent valuation survey shows that the cost benefit ratio works out at £1.15 made for every £1 of expenditure. This is extremely low.

And this report has been heavily criticised. There were only a small number of survey participants. They were not given sufficient information. Some were unaware of the severe heritage damage the proposed scheme would cause.

The government’s own Public Accounts Committee has pointed out that any benefits from the Stonehenge scheme depend on the completion of all eight planned improvements on a road corridor to the South West. But only three - including Stonehenge - are currently funded.

Planners and archaeologists are not the only critics. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has repeatedly suggested less damaging alternatives, most recently advising that the scheme should not go forward in its current form.

Momentum

Now the project is approved, we may wonder whether the WHS will lose its World Heritage status - bringing further international opprobrium. A petition asking the UK Government to reconsider the scheme already has more than 200,000 signatories from 147 countries worldwide.

And what about the climate emergency? The largest share of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the transport sector.

Why should any responsible government, capable of introducing alternative energy sources and transport modes, now actively seek to promote increased use of motor transport, making it less easy to effect changes in working and travelling habits?

It has been understood for years that building new roads induces more traffic. Widening the road at Stonehenge would do just that and, at the same time, shift currently intermittent traffic jams further down the road, making a nonsense of any claimed savings in travel time. For how much longer can this go on?

How could this retrograde scheme have been considered acceptable? Regrettably, it appears to be the support of UK heritage bodies which have so far given the scheme momentum.

Appeal

These bodies are the government's own Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Historic England, sponsored by the DDCMS and responsible for advising government on the heritage; English Heritage, a charitable trust whose sole legal member is Historic England and who manages the National Heritage Collection of properties including Stonehenge; and the National Trust, an independent charity under whose land at Stonehenge the tunnel would run.

Wiltshire Council also favours the scheme, seeking to placate local concerns about congestion and entertaining unreliable ambitions for economic development.

These views are also supported by many Conservative councillors and MPs of the South West region who would naturally wish to hold on to their seats. Some therefore stand to gain by the project; others toe the Government line. In combination, they are a powerful lobby.

It is a poor reflection on the UK Government that it should seek to destroy so much for so little, either through ignorance of the true facts or, worse, a lack of interest or concern.

Almost a century ago, a national appeal was launched by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, to rescue the immediate surroundings of Stonehenge from inappropriate development.

Future

The land purchased was given to the National Trust for safe keeping in perpetuity: inalienable land, many acres of it now subject to compulsory acquisition by agreement with the Trust, should the road scheme go ahead.

Without the National Trust’s enabling action, permanent desecration of the Stonehenge landscape movingly described by the scheme’s formal examiners, would not happen.

Who will come to the rescue of the Stonehenge landscape now? Not yet, it seems, the Prime Minister, the government or the National Trust.

It falls instead to a small group of citizens who care enough, have the determination, and are supported by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who are shocked by the prospect of what is intended for this uniquely special place.

Could the government and the National Trust, in view of current knowledge about the scheme, be persuaded at the eleventh hour to reconsider the road scheme? Can they yet act in the interest of common sense – now and for future generations?

This Author

Dr Kate Fielden is an archaeologist and environmental campaigner, and honarary secretary to the Stonehenge Alliance. She has been involved in discussions about the management of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site for more than 20 years, taking part in a number of public inquiries into planning and road proposals.

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