The recent consultation on expanding the A303 to a dual carriageway through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS) has stirred up much outrage.
Highways England has tried to manipulate the outcome of the consultation by providing only a single option of a 2.9km tunnel across a 5.4km wide World Heritage Site. People’s only choice was whether the bypass for Winterbourne Stoke should go to the north or south of the village.
In presenting the public with this lack of choice, Highways England has treated the public with disdain.
However, this could yet backfire on Highways England. The Stonehenge Alliance estimates that there were well in excess of 7,000 objections to Highways England’s proposals. A number of these responses came from outside the UK, signifying the Site’s international importance. The proposals also drew strong criticism from 21 eminent archaeologists who have worked extensively on Stonehenge and were alarmed at the harm that would be inflicted on the WHS.
The UK branch of the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS-UK), which advises UNESCO on issues affecting our WHSs, also weighed in with strong opposition to the short tunnel. It was concerned that the authorities had fundamentally misunderstood their duties and responsibilities with regard to the Site. It said that any benefit derived from placing the A303 in a short tunnel could not be used to offset the huge amount of damage that would result from constructing the tunnel portals and a mile of new dual carriageway within the WHS. This is contrary to the case put forward by Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust and could potentially land a fatal blow to the current proposals.
The scheme either needs to be abandoned altogether, or the whole process rerun with a full range of options which do not result in any harm to the World Heritage Site, including non-road building solutions.
The consultation also drew criticism for being too short and insufficiently advertised. Information presented during the consultation was also poor, while the business and transport case for upgrading the road was weak.
If the A303 were dualled along its whole length, more traffic would transfer to this route causing new bottlenecks and hold-ups. Several billion pounds would have been spent on damaging a site of international importance with no real benefits to the wider economy. Undoubtedly there are transport issues that need to be addressed, but much could be done without expanding the A303 and harming the Stonehenge WHS. Indeed, some measures could be enacted quite quickly and should be done whether there is a new A303 or not.
If Highways England just carries on as usual, it will publish its preferred route within the next six months. However, with this level of opposition to a scheme which doesn’t really stack up, it will need to pause for thought.
This could be an opportunity to do something radical, or it could spend more on a longer tunnel to try and make the problem go away. We await the reaction of Highways England with interest.
Campaign for Better Transport is part of the Stonehenge Alliance.