Stonehenge Tunnel Ruled “Unlawful”
A judge has just ruled on the heavily criticized proposal for a tunnel beneath Stonehenge. He’s quashed the British government’s plans. Campaigners working to save Stonehenge are delighted at the court case results, but is this truly the end of the tunnel vs Stonehenge battle?
What was the Tunnel Plan?
If you’re unfamiliar with the Stonehenge tunnel project, here’s a summary: scheduled to be operational in 2026, the government planned to include a new 2 mile (3.3 kilometer) long twin-bore tunnel running underneath the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. This was meant to improve congestion on the 8 mile (13 kilometer) long A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down past Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.
But these holy places and the nearby Neolithic sites are an “incomparable testimony to prehistoric times,” says UNESCO. The Stonehenge monument, being over 4,500 years old, is one of the best-preserved ancient structures left, anywhere. However, no less important is the Wiltshire chalk landscape around the monument which is as crucial to the mechanics of the astronomical observatory as the stones are themselves.
A303 queues at Stonehenge. This view looks more or less southwest towards the road. (Pam Brophy / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Taking it to the High Court
Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) crowdfunded £50,000 (roughly 59,000 USD) in 2020 to have the government’s order to build the tunnel reviewed by the High Court. The judge’s decision has now been given, ruling that transport secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to build the tunnel was “irrational” and “unlawful” on two grounds.
According to the Guardian, the court found a “material error of law” in the decision-making process, showing that the transport secretary failed to include evidence of the impact on each asset of the site. Furthermore, Mr. Shapps was said to have not properly considered alternative schemes to the tunnel, something that is necessary under the World Heritage Convention and common law.
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BBC News reports that “the project will have to be frozen while the government considers its next steps.” A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said, “We are disappointed in the judgment and are considering it carefully before deciding how to proceed.” But the campaigners working to save Stonehenge are delighted. SSWHS's director, John Adams, said:
“We could not be more pleased about the outcome of the legal challenge. Now that we are facing a climate emergency, it is all the more important that this ruling should be a wake-up call for the government. It should look again at its roads programme and take action to reduce road traffic and eliminate any need to build new and wider roads that threaten the environment as well as our cultural heritage.”
Stonehenge and surrounding earthworks. (Darren Tennant / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Stonehenge Tunnel - Good Value for Money, or Not?
Ministers have also debated whether to green-light the controversial tunnel beneath the historic Stonehenge and a report in the Financial Times says that while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps supported the $2.22 (£2) billion project, the Treasury had concerns about its “value for money”. And while the new road was aimed at easing a bottleneck on the A303 from London to the southwest, the Treasury also recognized alternative routes to the west on the M4 and M5 already exist – causing them to be concerned the project wouldn’t be a good use of British taxpayers’ money.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Chancellor Sajid Javid described the talks about the project as “rumors” but another minister said the Treasury “isn’t very keen”, adding that it was hard to see what the outcome might be. However, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed to align with Mr. Shapps regarding planned infrastructure projects saying: “the A303, you name it, to improve road and rail transport to Cornwall”.
The Alleged Benefits of the “Frozen” Tunnel
The 2 mile (3.3 kilometer) Stonehenge tunnel was originally to be PFI funded via the private finance initiative, but it was frozen in the 2018 Budget of then-chancellor Philip Hammond. Now, the new court case has the whole project frozen.
An article on Road Traffic Technology says the benefits of the proposed tunnel would have included: creating employment opportunities and supporting economic growth in the region and the journey time between Amesbury and Berwick Down would have been reduced from 60 minutes to 10 minutes during peak hours. Furthermore, improvements would have been made in accessibility for cyclists, walkers, and horse riders. A grass covered canopy would hide the tunnel and help restore the landscape surrounding the famous stone circle “by removing the sight and sounds of the road,“ according to the Financial Times.
The Stonehenge tunnel would supposedly help ease traffic in the area. (Peter Trimming / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Opponents to the Stonehenge Tunnel are Many
A journalist is spoiled when looking for opponents to this project, but let’s begin with an article in the Daily Mail which says any tunnel shorter than 2.7 miles (4.35 kilometers) would do “irreparable damage” to the landscape and local archaeological sites. Also, in that article, Tony Robinson, presenter of Time Team described the $2.22 (£2) billion proposed tunnel as “the most brutal intrusion ever” into the Stone Age landscape.
A report on Friends of the Earth asks, “If you’re allowed to dig up a World Heritage Site to build new roads, then is anything safe?” And they also say that because transport is now officially the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK the road would have adverse effects on “the climate, air quality, our landscape, our heritage, and our future”. Furthermore, Professor David Jacques, who heads up the award winning Blick Mead research project , says tunneling through the local chalk could cause “the water table to drop”, meaning bones and other organic remains could quickly dry out, and ”could be lost forever”.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the tunnel proposal, if it ever becomes “unfrozen,” would be the imminent threat to wildlife exasperated by the project. The RSPB, objecting to the tunnel, stated it “directly affects a number of stone-curlew nesting territories,” and potentially the stone curlew population in the rest of Salisbury Plain. What’s more, a turkey that was driven to extinction in Britain, the Great Bustard, is being re-introduced in the area and a construction project wouldn’t really help them settle in.
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Is There an Alternative to Doing Nothing?
Even though the tunnel project is currently frozen by the High Court’s ruling, acting chief executive, Nick Harris, said, “We now have to wait while the Department for Transport consider its options. We still believe our project is the best solution to the ongoing issues along the A303 past Stonehenge and was developed after a long and extensive collaboration with our key stakeholders.”
However, if we agree with the basic premise that the A303 needs to widened at all, a longer tunnel is the preferred option for many environmental and archaeological groups. According to Friends of the Earth, archaeologist Dr. Kate Fielden who also works with the Stonehenge Alliance, a tunnel of some 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) that avoids the World Heritage Site “must be the ultimate goal” and she adds that given the vast sums the government is proposing to spend on new roads, this solution should be perfectly feasible.
We must be mindful that while on the outside, where most of us sit, it might appear that British decision makers are risking thousands of years of history, heritage, wildlife, and a unique natural environment, in an apparently misguided attempt to improve a road journey, leading heritage groups including the National Trust said they believed the plans overall would “enhance and protect” the Stonehenge landscape.
Top image: The Stonehenge tunnel would supposedly help traffic in the area. The A303 is in the foreground. Source: diamond geezer / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
By Ashley Cowie
Updated July 31, 2021.