We are campaigning to stop the Government’s proposal to widen the A303 trunk road to the south west where it passes across the iconic Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS). The world heritage at Stonehenge transcends any consideration of sorting out a 21st century part-time traffic jam.
What’s wrong with the UK Government’s road scheme by Stonehenge?
The aims of the scheme were laudable at the time of announcing the scheme in 2014. These included restoring the integrity of the ancient site and reducing the negative impact of the main road within the World Heritage Site (WHS). The problem is that the scheme’s ambitions were greater than the allocated budget. As a result the project was designed as cheaply as possible and will spectacularly fail the integrity of the WHS.
Here are our principle concerns and objections:
- Loss of world heritage
- Archaeology at risk
- Landscape desecrated
- Strategic transport disbenefits
- Weak economic case
- Carbon generated from road building and traffic
- Alternatives dismissed, sidelined or ignored
- Loss of uplifting view
- Decision-making unlawful
Loss of world heritage
- The whole Stonehenge landscape is of outstanding universal value of immense significance for all people for all time. All of it makes up a “huge ancient complex” that holds many secrets yet to be discovered. The World Heritage Site (WHS) extends to beyond the horizons around the famous stones themselves, totalling about 6,500 acres.
- Where the A303 crosses the WHS it is about 5.4 km across. The Government proposes to dual the A303 including a short 3.3km tunnel (3km deep bored tunnel, 0.3km cut and cover) where it passes the Stones. It would result in at least 1.5km of above-ground road engineering within the WHS.
- The major highway components would include a stone lined 10 to 11 meters deep trench as wide as a football pitch, a flyover, two pairs of concrete tunnel portals, and slip roads all within the WHS, and major junctions of motorway standard on the WHS boundaries at each end.
- A panel of five specialist planning inspectors examined the scheme over a period of six months and recommended against the scheme. They said the scheme would introduce “a greater physical change to the Stonehenge landscape than has occurred in its 6,000 years as a place of widely acknowledged human significance.” See ‘Reasons for recommending refusal’.
- Despite UNESCO’s firm stand against the scheme, the future of the WHS is very uncertain.
- UNESCO World Heritage Committee has told the UK Government that the WHS would be placed on World Heritage in Danger list if the scheme goes ahead and the site could thus lose its world heritage status. It would cause irreparable damage to the WHS in breach of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and ignores UNESCO’s firm advice in 2018, and 2019, as well as its Advisory Mission in 2022. If the road scheme is implemented, the World Heritage Committee said it “would have deleterious impacts on the OUV [Outstanding Universal Value] of the property including its integrity, warranting inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger. (See UNESCO WHC, Riyadh 2023, paragraph 9, p90).
Archaeology at risk
- The damage to the archaeological landscape caused by the road scheme would be permanent and irreversible. The road will cut through an unusually high density of prehistoric artefacts. Only a limited amount will be recovered and recorded. See slides and transcript by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, distinguished expert on British Neolithic archaeology and member of the A303 Stonehenge Scientific Committee.
- The A303 corridor is important to our understanding of the communities that built Stonehenge. The gash at the western end goes through an area of ancient field systems dating at least to the Middle Bronze Age. See evidence presented by Dr David Field, retired Stonehenge field archaeologist formerly employed by English Heritage and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.
- At the eastern end, construction of the tunnel portal may have an effect on groundwater conditions which could detrimentally impact the survival of nationally important Mesolithic remains at Blick Mead. See evidence presented by Consortium of Stonehenge experts.
- Stonehenge WHS is the most archaeologically significant landscape “without parallel”.
- Part of the purpose of the Stonehenge tunnel is to reunite the northern and southern halves of the WHS landscape, currently split by the A303, a busy surface road.
- Most of the land to the south of the A303 is privately farmed. The present proposal of ‘green bridges’ would only offer limited north/south public access.
- Far from ‘conserving and enhancing’ the WHS, as has been regularly claimed by the scheme promoters, the infrastructure would leave a far larger blot on the landscape than exists at present.
- The plan is to down grade the existing A303 to a restricted Byway but beyond the tunnel portals it would be above the new noisy dual carriageway, visible by walkers and cyclists.
Strategic transport disbenefits
- National Highways identified 8 areas for improvement along the A303/A358 road corridor, including the section by Stonehenge.
- The National Audit Office said in 2019 that the benefits of the scheme could only be realised when all 8 schemes were completed. Funding, however, has only been secured for three projects.
- Thus the new section past Stonehenge would simply move traffic to the next jam a little faster, so long as there are no road works, traffic incidents, tunnel closures or diversions to delay the journey and the few minutes saved by the new dual carriageway.
- Inflation and spiralling construction costs will diminish the value of completing the remaining 5 schemes, a decision that would need to be carried forward to a future government that might have other priorities. (NAO progress report 2022)
Weak economic case
- The economic case has been much exaggerated. In 2016 a standard appraisal applied to the scheme resulted in costs that were three times larger than the benefits.
- Since the scheme was ostensibly to protect the WHS, the road promoter commissioned a survey to monetise the value of heritage the scheme would bring.
- The survey resulted in a heritage value of nearly £1bn, using a methodology questioned by the National Audit Office, the scheme examiners and our consultant.
- When the heritage value was added to the standard assessment the scheme BCR (benefit cost ratio) improved but scraped in as ‘low’.
- This calculation was prepared before the current rate of inflation and spiralling construction costs hit all infrastructure projects. It was also prepared before the heritage impact was criticised by the planning inspectors and UNESCO thereby devaluing the heritage calculation.
- At today’s prices the road scheme would cost £2.5bn. Our report explains why we believe the scheme no longer adds up, if in fact it ever did. See our report here.
Carbon generated from road construction and traffic
- Concern about climate change has increased dramatically since the Stonehenge road scheme was conceived in 2014. The applicant has downplayed the significance of increased carbon emissions generated by this scheme.
- The transport sector as a whole is the largest source of carbon emissions and these are not declining.
- National Highways admit that the scheme would increase carbon emissions by 2.5 million tonnes over its lifetime at a time when we need to rapidly reduce emissions. See Table 14.14 ‘Emissions breakdown by construction activity’ and Table 14.15 ‘Comparisons of road user emission’ here.
- Carbon values are increasing which would affect the already precarious business case for the scheme. These concerns were dismissed by National Highways stating that the current planning policy (NPSNN) is still under review and therefore there would be no change in their calculations.
- Their position is untenable and inconsistent with: Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency; the 6th Carbon Budget; the advice of the Climate Change Committee to reduce car travel; Government’s Decarbonising Transport Strategy; Department for Transport’s advice on carbon values.
Alternatives dismissed, sidelined or ignored
Failure to consider alternatives was a key factor in the quashing of the Secretary of State’s decision to approve the A303 Stonehenge scheme in 2021. However, the applicant has not attempted to produce alternatives to a scheme for which even the Secretary of State found the heritage impact to be significantly adverse.
What stands out is the total absence of proper consideration of how to reduce the impact of road traffic on local communities for at least the last 30 years. By selectively promoting this scheme, and its antecedents, progress on low cost low impact measures that could offer significant relief, and still could do, has been blocked.
- National Highways’ review of the current scheme approved by the Secretary of State for Transport has been based on the misapprehension that the scheme would ‘conserve and enhance the World Heritage Site‘ and is the ‘best solution‘. This fails to acknowledge the damning findings that the scheme would harm the world heritage and that its key aims would not be realised. Thus their review of alternatives amounts to little more than confirmation of the previous options appraisal.
- For example, in respect of the bored tunnel extension to 600m beyond the WHS boundary, the scheme promoter suggests that ‘There is no evidence that the additional investment required to extend the tunnel length would deliver meaningful additional benefits to the WHS that would justify the additional cost,‘ despite the obvious significant benefits of not losing about 7ha of fabric of the WHS as well as the associated additional wildlife benefits.
- UNESCO would like to see the tunnel extended to the WHS boundary at the very least. Its preferred option, however, is a southern surface route that avoids the WHS altogether, known as F010 that might add a few minutes but would be cheaper.
- National Highways asserts that the F010 route would have a larger ‘environmental impact’ and would encourage ‘higher levels of rat running’. Their arguments are not substantiated by any firm evidence. For a fuller discussion about alternative routes please see Section 5 of our report to the Secretary of State in April 2022.
Urgent consideration for a package of alternatives
- The policy environment has changed and there is a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and decarbonisation from transport. It has become a policy imperative to look beyond purely road-based solutions to transport problems on the A303 and elsewhere.
- Transferring trips to public transport has the potential of releasing capacity on the A303, but research on the interventions is very dated and merits a thorough study on the impacts of various measures. Encouragingly, Network Rail has committed to electrification from Newbury to Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance, making journeys faster and more attractive whilst building capacity for more freight.
- Increased home working is reducing travel demand by road and rail compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is especially true on rail routes, thereby releasing capacity. There is a strong case that could be made for enhanced rail capacity between Salisbury and Exeter together with complementary measures to improve local public transport access and creating encouraging conditions for active travel.
- Loss of tax revenue from electrification of vehicles is forcing a debate on road user charging. If this policy were adopted it is likely to be a major disincentive to make long distance journeys by car.
- At the very least ‘rubber necking’ could be discouraged by the planting of a native hedge to screen the view where motorists slow down.
- The Stonehenge Alliance believes this is the moment for an intelligent, inclusive debate about a package of measures as a matter of urgency. Stonehenge could be a world leader in applying best practice in demand management and low carbon solutions.
- We do not put ourselves forward as advocates of any specific intervention, although we do advocate the general approach of sustainable transport measures that would be far more fitting in the 21st century than gouging a concrete trench through a prehistoric “landscape without parallel”.
- The following list of suggestions have been proposed by town planner Tim Hagyard that could be implemented straightaway:
- A low-speed pilot for the use of the A303 could be easily and immediately introduced, assessed for its anticipated benefits in reducing noise and disturbance, followed by laying of ultra-quiet surfacing.
- A local road charging provision to manage congestion at peak times and generate green travel funds for walking, cycling, shuttle buses and improving the connection of the Stonehenge site with local businesses in Amesbury, Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, Avebury WHS and Salisbury.
- Local traffic management measures funded and monitored to reduce impacts on local communities, all with no risk of the unintended consequences of ‘induced traffic’.
- Retain an inclusive solution which enhances free public access and enjoyment of the monument on foot, by bicycle and local bus.
- Read more here Respect Stonehenge – An Alternative
Loss of uplifting view
- The site was bequeathed to the nation for public enjoyment. One of those pleasures is the exciting passing view of Stonehenge when travelling along one of Britain’s best-loved roads. The landmark has inspired millions of passing motorists and passengers. It has been described as “the most striking, historic vista on any road in Britain.”
- If the tunnel were built it would deprive travellers even a glimpse of the the world famous monument. To view Stonehenge travellers would have to stop, park and pay a steep fee to see it.
- Site managers, English Heritage, would be the winners from the loss of that distant view. It is a fact that English Heritage rely on Stonehenge as a ‘cash cow’ to support their other sites, but they already earn millions from it. Do we really want to add to the congestion of tourists that already crowd the site, visitor centre and gift shop? What above the pressure for more parking?
- Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State, acted unlawfully when granting permission for a dual carriageway and short tunnel through the Stonehenge WHS. The judge also found that he failed to consider less damaging ways of relieving traffic on the existing A303. Thus the scheme was quashed on 30 July 2021.
- We believe the decision by Mark Harper, the new SoS, to once again approve the same scheme on 14 July 2023 is unlawful. A summary of the grounds submitted by the legal team, Save Stonehenge WHS, are set out by their lawyers here.