Tunnel vs. Stonehenge: The Battle For Ancient Wiltshire Advances
Is the British government’s proposal for a two-mile long tunnel beneath Stonehenge good value for money? Maybe not.
Scheduled to be operational in 2026, the Stonehenge tunnel project will include a new 2 mile (3.3 kilometer) long twin-bore tunnel running underneath the Stonehenge World Heritage Site in a bid 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.
Stonehenge Tunnel - Good Value For Money, Or Not?
Ministers are debating 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 supports the $2.22 (£2) billion project, the Treasury has concerns about its “value for money”. And while the new road is aimed at easing a bottleneck on the A303 from London to the southwest, the Treasury is saying alternative routes to the west on the M4 and M5 already exist and they are concerned the project isn’t a good spend of British taxpayers money.
A303 queues at Stonehenge. This view looks more or less southwest towards the road. (Pam Brophy / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In an interview with the Financial Times last week, 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. And last week at Prime Ministers Questions Boris Johnson seemed to align with Mr. Shapps with regarding planned infrastructure projects he said: “the A303, you name it, to improve road and rail transport to Cornwall”.
The Alleged Benefits Of The New Road
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, and now, Chancellor Sajid Javid has yet to allocate his reserved $88.7 (£80) billion pounds for infrastructure projects.
An article on Road Traffic Technology says the benefits of the new tunnel include: creating employment opportunities and supporting economic growth in the region and the journey time between Amesbury and Berwick Down will be reduced from 60 minutes to 10 minutes during peak hours. Furthermore, improvements will be made in accessibility for cyclists, walkers, and horse riders. A grass covered canopy will hide the tunnel and will 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 is supposed to help 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 planned a $2.22 (£2) billion 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 will 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”.
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Perhaps the saddest aspect of this situation is the imminent threat to wildlife which is 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 won’t really help them settle in.
Is There An Alternative To Doing Nothing?
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 works with the Stonehenge Alliance said 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, however, 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 is supposed to help traffic in the area. The A303 is in the foreground. Source: diamond geezer / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
By Ashley Cowie