Campaigners await verdict on whether Stonehenge tunnel is unlawful - Museums Association

Campaigners await verdict on whether Stonehenge tunnel is unlawful

Two legal challenges warn of dangers to heritage site and environment if scheme goes ahead
Profile image for Rebecca Atkinson
Rebecca Atkinson
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Detail of the sarsen circle at Stonehenge
Detail of the sarsen circle at Stonehenge English Heritage

The high court has heard two separate legal challenges to the government’s plans to build a tunnel under Stonehenge – but the verdicts could be weeks or even months away.

The government is proposing to create a fully bored tunnel of at least 2.9km to remove much of the A303 road from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. The plan is part of a wider scheme to widen the dual carriageway.  

But several campaign groups – comprised of environmental activists as well as Druids and archaeologists – have launched legal action against the scheme.

Last week, the court heard a judicial review brought by Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site, part of the Stonehenge Alliance, which claims the proposed tunnel scheme will have a detrimental impact on the ancient site. It believes that transport secretary Grant Shapps’s approval of the scheme in 2014 was unlawful because it allegedly didn’t consider the impact widening the road would have on all aspects on the World Heritage Site.

In a statement, the group said that inspectors previously warned that any benefits of a tunnel underneath the ancient site “would not outweigh the harm arising from the excavation of a deep, wide cutting and other engineering works, within the World Heritage Site and its setting”.

In a second high court case, which was heard earlier this week on 29 and 30 June, the Transport Action Network challenged the £27.4bn Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), which includes the A303 Stonehenge project. The network claims that Shapps broke the law when approving RIS2 by failing to consider its effects on the environment.

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Kate Fielden, honorary secretary to the Stonehenge Alliance, said: “Quite apart from the disastrous impact of the Stonehenge road scheme on the World Heritage Site, carbon emissions forecast for road transport in connection with the scheme are very high.

“Furthermore, there would be massive carbon emissions in the production of concrete for the twin-bore tunnels and deep cutting walls. To carry on regardless of the implications of these facts in the face of an acknowledged climate emergency is not only reprehensible but also highly irresponsible when considering the long-term survival of the planet and the quality of life of future generations.”

Both cases have now been heard by the court, but verdicts may take three weeks or possibly months to come back.

Commenting on the Stonehenge Alliance court hearing, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport said: “We are confident the decision [taken by Snapps] to proceed with the A303 Stonehenge project was correct, lawful and well-informed. We therefore cannot comment further prior to the court handing down its judgment.”

Responding to Transport Action Network’s court case, the spokesperson said: “Our road policy contains many elements – a plan for decarbonisation of vehicles, plans for public transport and active travel, and plans for road improvements that utilise low-carbon construction techniques.

“Together, these make a balanced package that is entirely consistent with net zero. We cannot comment further as this is a live litigation case.”

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A decision letter dated 12 November 2020, published on the Planning Inspectorate’s Infrastructure Planning Portal website, sets out the reasons for the government’s decision. 

Unesco has expressed concerns about the Stonehenge scheme. In 2019, it said the current proposal retains “substantial exposed dual carriageway sections... which would impact adversely on the outstanding universal value of the property”.

Its World Heritage Committee will examine Stonehenge at its forthcoming annual session (16 to 31 July), when it reviews the state of conservation of properties on the World Heritage List as well as new sites.

Museums Journal contacted English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge, for comment.

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