Unesco has condemned the UK government’s recent decision to greenlight a controversial plan to build a two-mile tunnel close to the ancient site of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK. Earlier this year, Mark Harper, the transport secretary, approved the project, which was initially costed at £1.7bn.
The overhaul of the area is being overseen by the government agency known as National Highways. The work involves rerouting the A303 road, which runs alongside the prehistoric Wiltshire site into a new dual-carriageway tunnel passing close to the heritage site. The A303, meanwhile, will be turned into a public walkway.
In a report issued by the Unesco World Heritage Committee last week, which was endorsed by 21 member states, the UN cultural body said that “the proposed A303 road improvement scheme, for which a DCO [development consent order] was first issued in 2020, contrary to the request of the [World Heritage] committee and the State Party’s [the UK government's] own Examining Authority [an Examination Body of five inspectors rejected the plan] and which was later quashed by the UK High Court in 2021, remains a threat to the OUV [outstanding universal value] of the property.”
Unesco says it is reiterating its previous request that “the State Party not proceed with the implementation of the scheme for the section between Amesbury and Berwick Down in its current form, and considers that the minimum change required must include an extension of the underground section of the western approach ([relating to the] tunnel) to at least the western boundary of the property”. Unesco requests that the UK government makes necessary modifications to the redevelopment plan, in line with its previous recommendations, by 1 February 2024.
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.
David Bullock, National Highways' project manager for the A303 Stonehenge scheme, told the BBC: “We remain confident this scheme is the best solution for tackling a long-standing traffic bottleneck, improving journeys, bringing much-needed relief to local communities, boosting the economy in the south-west, while returning the Stonehenge landscape to something like its original setting.”