Stonehenge tunnel plan gets go-ahead from Grant Shapps

A controversial plan to dig a road tunnel near Stonehenge has been given the go-ahead by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The decision, announced by Transport Minister Andrew Stephenson, goes against the recommendations of planning officials, who warned it would cause "permanent, irreversible harm" to the World Heritage Site.

The A303, which is a popular route for motorists travelling to and from the South West, is often severely congested on the single carriageway stretch near the stones in Wiltshire.

Stonehenge tunnel
(PA Graphics)

Highways England says its plan for a two-mile tunnel will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site and cut journey times.

But some environmentalists and archaeologists have voiced their opposition to the plan due to its potential impact on the area.

In June it emerged that a team of archaeologists had discovered a ring of at least 20 large shafts within the World Heritage Site, a short distance from the stones.

The project is classified as nationally significant, which means a Development Consent Order is needed for it to go ahead.

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Stonehenge throughout history
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Stonehenge throughout history
Restoration work on Stonehenge. (Photo by Brian Seed/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Restoration work on Stonehenge, replacing stones on arches. (Photo by Brian Seed/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
circa 1911: A Bristol Prier monoplanefrom the Bristol Flying School in low flight over Stonehenge. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
STONEHENGE 1958: A 60 ton crane in use at Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, to raise a slab of rock weighing 20 tons which is carefully cradled to distribute the weight. The Ministry of Works is restoring one of the trilithons which crashed to earth in 1797. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
STONEHENGE, Wiltshire. Re-erection of Trilithon lintel 158 by the 60 ton 'Brabazon Crane', the larger of two cranes used to lift stones. The lintel is being lowered and man-handled into its final resting position on upright stones 57 and 58. (Photo by R J C Atkinson/English Heritage/Arcaid/Corbis via Getty Images)
28th March 1958: A sixty ton crane, one of only two of its kind in the country, lifts an eighteen ton lintel of a fallen trilithon at the ancient monument of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. (Photo by John Franks/Keystone/Getty Images)
One of the massive pieces, No. 91 Station Stone as it is known to the Ministry of Works, is used for anchorage during preparations to straighten some of the trilithons of Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
circa 1965: Stonehenge in sunshine and shadow against a brilliant blue sky. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 21: Solstice participants wait for the midsummer sun to rise over the megalithic monument of Stonehenge on June 21, 2007 on Salisbury Plain, England. Crowds gathered at the 5,000 year old stone circle to celebrate the Summer Solstice; the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Stonehenge, Amesbury, Salisbury, Wiltshire, England
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, 2 miles (3 km) west of Amesbury and 8 miles (13 km) north of Salisbury. Stonehenge's ring of standing stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, 2 miles (3 km) west of Amesbury and 8 miles (13 km) north of Salisbury. Stonehenge's ring of standing stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.
Aerial view of Stonehenge, prehistoric monument and stone circle, UNESCO World Heritage Site, United Kingdom.
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The Planning Inspectorate – an executive agency of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – recommended the Transport Secretary withhold consent because the project would substantially and permanently harm the integrity and authenticity of the World Heritage Site, which includes the stone circle and the wider archaeology-rich landscape.

In a report to Mr Shapps, the officials said permanent, irreversible harm, critical to the outstanding universal value of the site, or why it is internationally important, would occur, "affecting not only our own, but future generations".

The Department for Transport wrote to Highways England stating that: "The Secretary of State is satisfied that, on balance, the need case for the development together with the other benefits identified outweigh any harm."

There is now a six-week period in which the decision can be challenged in the High Court.

Highways England chief executive Jim O'Sullivan said: "This transformational scheme will return the Stonehenge landscape towards its original setting and will improve journey times for everyone who travels to and from the South West."

Project director Derek Parody said: "It is a scheme objective to conserve and enhance the World Heritage Site and this is being achieved through close collaborative working with heritage groups, including English Heritage, National Trust, Historic England and the independent A303 Scientific Committee."

Professor David Jacques, of the University of Buckingham, who has been working since 2005 on the Blick Mead area within the world heritage site, close to where the road will run, said the decision was "gut-wrenching".

He said investigations at Blick Mead had revealed thousands of years of Mesolithic occupation, ancient plant DNA which provides a record of the landscape, and well-preserved aurochs' hoofprints.

"The tunnel is going to clearly compromise the archaeology. Whose interest is that in? It makes no sense," he said.

"It's not just about Stonehenge, it's not just about Britain, it's an international scandal."

Preparatory work is due to begin in spring next year, with the five-year construction phase expected to start by 2023.

This means the tunnel is likely to open one year later than initially planned.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in March that funding is in place for the project, which is part of a £1.7 billion upgrade of the A303.

Public-private funding was due to be used to finance the work, but in October 2018 then-chancellor Philip Hammond cancelled future deals using that model.

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