An artistic impression of ye Department for Transport’s original environmentally sensitive and fully funded plan for ye A303 Stonehenge Tunnel.
While supported by ye English Heritage and ye National Trust, said plan was opposed by Mr Stukeley Esq and diverse Druids so ’twas shelved for reasons of politics, as was ye other DfT plan for ye third balloon runway at Heathrow.
It has emerged that Prime Minister David Cameron may not have been telling the entire truth when he referred to the plan to build a tunnel under the iconic monument of Stonehenge as “robust ” and “unstoppable” during a televised visit to the stones in November last year. The allegation comes as news emerges that the controversial and long delayed [since 1995] tunnel designed to take the A303 trunk route to the west of England beneath the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge has been included in a £2 billion funding package announced by the Department for Transport last week, in spite of planning for the tunnel only being at a preliminary stage and estimates of the cost fluctuating wildly.
During a widely reported media call at Stonehenge in November 2014 the Prime Minister said of the Stonehenge tunnel scheme “It has unstoppable momentum now, because the plan for the tunnel is robust, the money in the national budget is there, the vital importance of infrastructure is now accepted by everybody. I think this is now unstoppable.’ However, it now appears that Mr Cameron’s announcement made during the visit, which was widely derided at the time as an attempt to make him look like President Obama who had undertaken a similar visit to the stones shortly before and also as blatant electioneering [as was the identical announcement and media call with then Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also at Stonehenge earlier the same day] may even have been something of a pre Election porkie. This is because, it is claimed, the headline confirming funding for the new roads package masks the fact that the DfT’s announcement on 13 October was in fact a relaunch of a relaunch for the scheme which, far from being robustly planned and budgeted, is still in the early stages of development. Worse, on the Government’s own timetable, the tunnel is unlikely to even get the go ahead before the start of the next Parliament in 2020, after Mr Cameron has said he will stand down.
At the [re]launch of the DfT scheme to upgrade bottlenecks in the West County’s road network on 13 October, Roads Minister Andrew Jones, told the media assembled in Yeovil that, among other proposals; “On the A303 around Stonehenge we are developing a scheme between Amesbury to Berwick Down, including building a tunnel to improve journey time reliability on this heavily congested road and improve the setting of the World Heritage Site.” the minister added “The investment will see improvements being developed along a series of motorways and ‘A’ roads between now and 2021 with the intention of giving road users simpler, faster and more reliable journeys, boosting the region’s economy and helping to bring the country closer together,” However, what Mr Jones failed to include in his statement was the information, which the Department for Transport has admitted separately, that the Government owned road infrastructure development company, Highways England, is still considering crucial details of the A303 scheme, including the length of the tunnel. As a consequence the earliest the scheme would go out to the statutory public consultation is some time in 2017. Once the consultation period, and any subsequent public scrutiny and even potential judicial reviews, are factored in, this effectively pushes the start of the scheme, even if it does get the green light, into the next Parliament and across the desks of a new set of Ministers, or perhaps even a new Government entirely.
The Government knows that the only solution to the acknowledged A303 bottleneck at Stonehenge which has any chance of passing environmental scrutiny is a tunnel. That much has been clear for over twenty years. This means that for the Government and Highways England, the cheapest option is to build a 2.9km tunnel taking the A303 past the stones themselves and surfacing close to the junction of the A360. However, campaigners against this so called “short tunnel” point out that this option would cause major and irreversible damage to the UNESCO World Heritage Site as the designated area around Stonehenge is over five kilometers across. An additional problem is the sheer cost of even the shortest tunnel. In a series of Parliamentary written answers published in September 2015, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, Lord Ahmad, told the House that the cost of the short tunnel was somewhere between £864 million to £1.321 billion and that Highways England had not yet obtained reliable estimates for the longer tunnel options at all. Such a figure becomes even more significant when it is noted that the entire funding package announced by Mr Jones last week is just £2 billion. It is also regarded as highly significant that Lord Ahmad also confirmed that Highways England had taken no steps to see if additional funding from outside its regular sources might be available. While the cost of a Stonehenge type project is far beyond what might be possible with the support of the National Lottery it would not be beyond a private investor who could seek a return for investment in the tunnel build through the same kind of road pricing scheme as operates on major motorway river crossings at Dartford and on the Severn and in Central London. However, such a solution would be politically very difficult on a normal trunk route, making it hard to see what other significant funding sources are available.
Apart from the difficulties in funding and the danger of a rapidly escalating budget, a further reason for the reluctance to push ahead with the scheme, even though the Government from the Prime Minister down, claims its completion is vital in opening up the south west in the drive for growth, is that the scheme is potentially as politically poisonous for Conservative MP’s in the South of England, in environmental terms, as the go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow would be for Conservative MP’s in West London. Those with long memories will recall the protests at Twyford Down, and the Newbury Bypass which severely damaged the previous Conservative Government’s roads programme in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and those schemes were not even alleged to be damaging irreparably an iconic World Heritage Site revered by environmentalists and self-styled Druids. Any hapless junior minister going up against Arthur Pendragon defender of Stonehenge and Neo-Druid King of Britain.on the TV news would most likely face a waking nightmare, a feature appearance on video in “Have I got News For You” and endless repeats on YouTube.
Controversially the short tunnel scheme appears to have support from senior management at both English Heritage, which manages the stones and the National Trust, which is the main landowner of the World Heritage Site. However, another problem the Government faces is the ongoing success of archaeologists in demonstrating just how rich and sensitive the landscape around Stonehenge actually is. A factor which more than justifies Stonehenge’s UNESCO endorsed World Heritage status and will almost certainly concern many of the rank and file membership of both organisations. As recently as September 2015, the high profile Stonehenge Landscape Project revealed that it had uncovered evidence for one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Europe within the UNESCO designated area and there is the promise of much more to come. Almost certainly including significant finds on the long approach ramps and 1.6km of new dual carriageway required for the short tunnel. However, when asked about the Government’s commitment to Stonehenge as a UNESCO World Heritage Site Culture Minister, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, told Parliament: “This Government will continue to honour its obligations under article 4 of the World Heritage Convention regarding the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. We are committed to working with UNESCO and its advisory bodies to ensure that the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site is taken into consideration in any forthcoming road scheme. We will be closely monitoring the development of any such scheme as it progresses.”
This answer, and particularly the phrase “taken into consideration”, was seen by critics as equivocal at best and in a further written response, which the Stonehenge Alliance found highly disturbing, Lord Ahmad also revealed that Highways England’s preliminary planning for the tunnel scheme had not included any consultation with the UK branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS-UK). Critics would suggest that this is because they know precisely what answer they would get about anything other than the long tunnel option, and did not want to have such a response reported to Parliament, released under a Freedom of Information Act request or cited in a potential judicial review of any go ahead for a tunnel. That particular Whitehall ruse has failed because in November 2014 ICAMOS-UK stated in a letter seen by the BBC; “We appreciate the very real need to address the issue of the A303 and recognise that a tunnel could have beneficial impacts on parts of the World Heritage property,” adding in a crucial caveat; “However, we are concerned that associated portals and dual carriageways could have a highly adverse impact on other parts of the World Heritage landscape that cannot be set aside, however great the benefits of a tunnel.” [our italics].
In spite of the acquiescence of the National Trust and English Heritage, at least for now, officials at the DfT will be well aware that the “adverse impact” described by ICOMOS-UK would be maximised by any decision to build the short tunnel and campaigners fear that these answers suggest that is precisely what the Government would like to do. Particularly as Lord Ahmad and the Department for Transport also conspicuously refused to answer the question posed by Green Party Peer and former archaeologist, Baroness Jones, who set out: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to implement a tunnel for the A303 in order to avoid the entire surface area of the Stonehenge part of the World Heritage Site?”
With Historic England and the National Trust now apparently out of step with many experts in the archaeological establishment, with ICAMOS-UK and the with the almost 18,000 people who have already signed the Stonehenge Alliance petition demanding that “no further damage” is done to the Stonehenge landscape, it is beginning to look very much as if the Stonehenge Tunnel may once again be heading towards the Red Ministerial Pandora’s Box marked “Too Difficult”. If so it is likely to remain there until a Secretary of State at the Department for Transport has the courage to make a decision to build the tunnel and tough out the inevitable controversy which would follow. An outcome which could almost certainly only come about with support from the very top of the Government and well away from a General Election. That, or the Treasury will need to find enough money to throw at the problem to enable the building of the long tunnel option to keep the opposition quiet. An outcome which many would regard as about as likely in the current political and economic climate as archaeologists finding definitive proof that Stonehenge is indeed a landing pad for UFO’s, which was built by the Druids. Of course, with the State visit due, the Chinese Government could always put in a bid for Stonehenge and fund the tunnel with the profits from another nuclear power station.