The UK government has approved a controversial plan to build a two-mile tunnel close to the ancient site of Stonehenge, a move described as “disgraceful” by opposing heritage groups. Mark Harper, the transport secretary, has decided to greenlight the controversial project which was initially costed at £1.7bn.
The overhaul of the area, overseen by the government agency known as National Highways, involves rerouting the A303 road which runs alongside the prehistoric Wiltshire site into a new dual-carriageway tunnel while the current A303 will be turned into a public walkway.
Unesco has previously formally opposed the plan, saying in 2019 that the tunnel initiative will have an “adverse impact”. In 2021, it warned that Stonehenge could be put on its list of World Heritage sites in danger if the tunnel project was not modified (Unesco had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing).
In November 2020, Grant Shapps, the then transport secretary, approved the scheme but a High Court ruling in 2021, which raised concerns about the environmental impact on the Unesco World Heritage Site, meant the project was quashed.
In a 64-page document, Harper said he was “satisfied” that the project’s “harm on spatial, visual relations and settings is less than substantial and should be weighed against the public benefits”. Meanwhile, Nick Harris, the chief executive of National Highways, told the Telegraph that the proposed scheme will “remove the sight and sound of traffic from this very busy road and return one of our most important World Heritage Sites to something like its original setting”.
But Michael Parker Pearson, a professor of British later prehistory at University College London, tells The Art Newspaper: “I'm disappointed by the weakness of [conservation body] Historic England in all of this. They're supposed to fight for preservation of the remains of our ancient past, and they've failed. Unesco, the CPRE Countryside Charity and the Council for British Archaeology, as well as the Planning Inspectors and the High Court, have all said this scheme isn't good enough. But Historic England have rolled over to National Highways.”
Indeed, in a statement, Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England says he is "very pleased" by the government's decision. "By putting much of the busy A303 into a tunnel past Stonehenge, the intrusive sight and sound of traffic past the iconic monument will be significantly reduced. The scheme will allow this outstanding prehistoric landscape, which has been of deep significance to people for over 5,000 years, to be reconnected," he adds.
Meanwhile Tom Holland, the president of an association of campaign groups called The Stonehenge Alliance, says in a statement: “The decision of Mark Harper to greenlight the building of a tunnel through a stretch of the World Heritage Site that surrounds Stonehenge is as inexplicable as it is disgraceful.”