The UK Government has been told to amend its plans to bore a tunnel under Stonehenge or risk the prehistoric site being placed on Unesco's World Heritage In Danger register.
Last week at its 44th session in Fuzhou, China, the World Heritage Committee expressed concerns that the A303 road improvement scheme at Stonehenge was a “potential threat to the property” that could have “deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics, notably to its integrity”.
It set the government a deadline of 1 February 2022 to amend its plans – including extending the tunnel – in order to “deliver the best available outcome for the Outstanding Universal Value of the property”. If not, it is expected to place Stonehenge on the heritage in danger list at its 45th meeting next year.
Responding to Unesco’s warning, a spokesperson for English Heritage, which manages the site, said: “[Stonehenge] is one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in the world, but for far too long it has been cut in two by a major road.
“We’ve already seen the enormous improvement brought about by removing the A344 and the inappropriate old visitor facilities next to the stones. Removing the A303 will completely reunite the ancient landscape and allow everyone to understand Stonehenge better. People will at last be able to explore the wider countryside surrounding the stones, including all the many other fascinating prehistoric monuments.
“English Heritage will continue to work closely with heritage partners, Highways England and Wiltshire Council to ensure that the final road scheme is the best available outcome for the World Heritage site, minimising harm and maximising its benefits.”
And a spokesperson for Historic England said it welcomed the opportunity for the government to provide an updated report on the conservation of the Stonehenge site: “This will allow the issues raised and recommendations to be discussed further at the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee meeting in 2022.”
A spokesperson for the National Trust said: “The A303 blights Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape. For three decades now, we and many others, including the World Heritage Committee, have sought a long term solution to the impacts this road has on the views, the setting in which the ancient monuments sit, and access to the landscape.
“We continue to believe in the benefits of a tunnel project which would reunite the Stonehenge Landscape and improve the experience for the millions of visitors who come to this unique site.
“We note that UNESCO, at the 44th Session of the World Heritage Committee, has ratified a decision relating to the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site, and call on all the parties to work together to agree practical solutions to their concerns, improving the situation once and for all.”
A UK Government spokesman said the government was confident that the decision to proceed with the tunnel was correct, lawful and well-informed.
He said: “Protecting the heritage and archaeology of the Stonehenge site is a priority for the Government and Highways England and we will continue to work closely with Unesco, Icomos and the heritage and scientific community on next steps.”
At its meeting, the World Heritage Committee warned that a pending verdict from a high court case may also lead it to place Stonehenge on its danger list.
As previously reported by Museums Journal, a judicial review brought by Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site, part of the Stonehenge Alliance, 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. A verdict is expected soon.
Meanwhile, a second high court case brought by the Transport Action Network at the end of June has failed. The case challenging the government’s £27.4bn Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), which includes the A303 Stonehenge project, claimed that Shapps broke the law when approving RIS2 by failing to consider its effects on the environment.
However, the high court ruled this week that Shapps did not need to provide evidence to show he had considered the impact of the roads programme on climate targets.
Chris Todd, the director of Transport Action Network, said: “In a month of unprecedented fires and floods, the effect of this judgment is to prioritise the ‘stability and certainty’ of the roads over that of our climate. The judgment has failed to grapple with the clear requirement created by parliament that ministers must carefully consider environmental impacts.
“This will surely send shivers down the spine of anyone hoping for urgent action on climate. Even if rising waters were lapping at the steps of the courts and Whitehall, it appears scrutiny of government climate decisions would still be side-stepped. As the quickening pace of global heating threatens the rule of law, we need legislation upheld rather than ministers let off the hook.”
The network is planning to appeal the verdict.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We welcome the court’s judgement, which has found that our approach to assessing the carbon impacts of our road investment strategy was entirely lawful.
“Decarbonising transport is one of our main priorities and roads will continue to play a huge role in that, facilitating cyclists, buses and electric vehicles as we work towards banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
“Earlier this month we published our Transport Decarbonisation Plan which will further set transport on the path to achieving net zero by 2050.”