A rebel alliance, over five hundred years of political spin in one historic room and the potential for a fashionably retro computer game; Andy Brockman visits the Highways England A303 Stonehenge Tunnel consultation
The government’s austerity cuts have clearly bitten hard in Whitehall because, from last Thursday’s consultation day at the Society of Antiquaries, it is clear that Highways England have not been able to upgrade the office games console since at least the PS2 [other gaming devices are available]. There can be no other explanation for the superficially convincing, but on closer inspection soulessly bland, computer generated graphics, lacking in essential detail, which were placed on display by the government’s arms length transport body as it attempted to sell the highly controversial preferred option for the upgrade of the A303 at Stonehenge. But somewhat like Highways England trying to sell on incomplete information only one option for the upgraded road, I am jumping ahead faster than a Ford Mondeo passing Britain’s most iconic field monument and English Heritage’s biggest cash cow. To begin with, by an accident of timing the setting of the Stonehenge tunnel consultation exhibition dripped with added historical symbolism. The problem was not all of it was helpful to the Government’s agency’s cause.
Entering the courtyard of Burlington House, home of the prestigious Royal Academy the visitor was confronted first, not even by a miniature model of the Neolithic monument in the mode of “Spinal Tap”, let alone by a sign pointing to the exhibition explicitly, but instead by a giant recreation of Sir Anthony van Dyck’s triple portrait of King Charles the First. The King was inviting the visitor into the Academy’s stunning exhibition reconstructing the King’s art collection. However, on Thursday there was also a sideshow, literally as the exhibition in question was being held in the august surroundings of the Society of Antiquaries, tucked away on the western side of the courtyard.
The A303 Stonehenge, Amesbury to Berwick Down Public Consultation had reached London “for one day only” because as reported previously in thePipeLine the UK Government is embroiled in an increasingly bitter row with many independent archaeological experts and UN cultural watchdog UNESCO, over the proposal which includes plans to bore a tunnel under part of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and build a modern dual carriageway road across a substantial slice of the rest from east to west and a public consultation is part of the legal process to gain permission for the project. Although curiously for a nationally important site and a World Heritage Site of universal importance this was the only chance people outside of the immediate area of the monument would get to see the exhibition and interrogate representatives of Highways England about the project in person. And with all due respect to the Antiq’s, if you wanted to give the public access to consult on the project the Society of Antiquaries do not get the footfall of say the British Museum. Effectively a site of Outstanding Universal Value was being treated like a scheme for a local by-pass. But maybe that was the point? Conspiracy theorists, and those familiar with the dark arts of getting a policy through at Westminster, might conclude that Highways England and the UK Government do not want the Stonehenge case to be internationalised because that way lies much diplomatic grief and, in Whitehall speak, a difficult workstream. However, in these days of the destruction of World Heritage Sites by terrorist groups, the UK Government, “taking back control” from UNESCO is a dangerous game to play on the international stage.
In such historic surroundings it will also not have escaped the notice of anyone taking the long view that the consultation was taking place under the triple gaze of a King who famously walked to his death in Whitehall in defence of his right as the representative of God and personification of Government to do what ever the hell he liked. As such it reeked of that peculiar brand of hubris to which modern government ministers also seem peculiarly susceptible. A hubris usually born out of incompetence, or a cavalier disregard for legal process when pursuing pet “legacy projects”. Projects such as building cable cars which no-one uses and unbuilt private bridges, masquerading as gardens, costing the tax payer north of £40 million [See the saga of the London Garden Bridge in thePipeLine passim]. Another factor in many such debacles is the apparent pliability of arms length agencies and public watchdogs like Historic England. But again I am jumping ahead.
In another echo of the England of the 1640’s, for the duration of Thursday’s transport civil war the Stonehenge World Heritage Site had gained its own Rebel Alliance. An un-trained band of non-conformist Levellers have sworn to defend the site’s protected status, if necessary at push of pike, and they come in the shape of the massed banner wielding foot soldiers of the Earl of Avebury’s own regiment, Stonehenge Alliance; motto “Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site.” These doughty fighters, drawn from Wiltshire and beyond, were supported on the day by the rhetorical flourishes of fire and brimstone historian Tom Holland calling the Highways England plan an “absolute desecration” of the most precious prehistoric landscape in the whole of Europe and the Blick Mead Militia raised by Colonel of Foot David Jaques of the University of Buckingham who came armed with the latest research.
The field of battle was the claim by proponents of the government’s scheme that removing the section of the A303 trunk road which runs closest to Stonehenge and burying the road in a tunnel will not just remove a notorious traffic bottleneck [notorious at least on Summer Bank Holiday weekends], but also “reunite” the landscape and enable visitors to wander freely across a large part of the World Heritage Site without having to doge forty foot articulated lorries and car loads of frustrated would be holidaymakers.
[Wander freely across large parts of the landscape that is, until they try to approach the famous Stones themselves in which case non members will have to stump up over eighteen quid, plus inflation, to English Heritage.]
Meanwhile the critics of the proposed tunnel and dual carriageways have taken up defensive positions, concerned that the plan will cause irrevocable harm to a site with what United Nations cultural body UNESCO describes as “Outstanding Universal Value” [OUV], and which the UK holds in trust for the world. The critics from the Rebel Alliance argue that this generation has no right to make decisions about the survival or not of more than seven thousand years of internationally recognised archaeology in the Stonehenge Landscape, much of it still to be discovered, which will impact all the generations to come, whatever the prospects in the short term for improved traffic flows and additional archaeological research funded by the road project.
For this skirmish at the Antiq’s, while the Rebel [Stonehenge] Alliance fielded its crack troops and included a Peer of the Realm, the government lines were thinly held under the command of middle ranking and junior officers, flying the colours of the Department for Transport’s “Mini Me”, Highways England.
The most likely reason for this was that, in a time honoured Westminster tradition, their high command in Parliament had determined that with local elections in May, a General Election possible at any time and Brexit taking up all available Civil Service headspace [just where do you park thousands of lorries waiting for customs checks at Dover?], it was best for the Department for Transport and its ministers not to be too closely associated with any unpleasantness or difficult decisions. Decisions such as not making irrevocable changes to a World Heritage Sites until it becomes clear who is actually going to win this particular battle.
Entering the actual exhibition, past the “No Photography Please” sign [prompting thoughts of just what have they got to hide when pretty much all of the information was available in print and online anyway? In these days of ubiquitous mobile phones equipped with HD cameras capable of recording a broadcast quality documentary not even most museums try to enforce that one any more] the command post of the Government troops was laid out in a defensive laager of display boards, maps and TV screens, looking like the set from a 1970’s episode of Doctor Who. Albeit an episode with a particularly low budget.
Significantly, and deeply symbolically, tucked away in the corner, but obviously looking down on the Highways England Roadshow, was a Tudor portrait of King Richard III. An individual who was also the subject of some aggressive media spin by the government of the day, not least by Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Moore and, in the role of an Elizabethan Malcolm Tucker, one William Shakespeare.
However, the spinning being undertaken by Highways England in the meeting room of the Society of Antiquaries was of a different order to Shakespearean accusations of smiling villainy, and the murder most foul of monarchs, siblings and children. Indeed there is no way that the foot soldiers in the Highways England spin cycle could be described as villains.
The Highways England team were enthusiastic and attentive and seemed to operate on a one to one ratio with visitors, to the extent that each visitor could, if they wished, receive what was effectively a private tutorial on the prospects for 21st century road transport in Wiltshire. Knowledgeable about the project, patient and, on the surface at least, quietly enthusiastic, without taking on the guilt inducing, in your face, style of high street chuggers, they were prepared to deliver bullet points on subjects ranging from traffic density and the positioning of green bridges to noise levels and hydrology with varying levels of detail. Although one question about the movement of ground water across the line of the tunnel and what would happen at the end of the tunnel’s working life reportedly led to the response that it was a really good question which had not actually been covered in the environmental analysis to date and could well prompt some fresh data collection and computer modelling.
That highlighted the main problem with this particular skirmish between Highways England and the public.
Billed as a consultation on the Government’s preferred solution to the A303 upgrade from Amesbury to Berwick Down, the environmental analysis of the project is a work in progress. Yet nowhere in the exhibition were there the independent archaeological reports, let alone the letter from twenty two independent archaeological experts questioning the tunnel project. Also absent was the highly critical report by a team from UNESCO which asked the Government to think again about the project. In effect Highways England were trailing their coat, trying to draw the public and troops from the Rebel [Stonehenge] Alliance into a fight on the Government’s own terms. Something that the rebel alliance were determined to avoid because to take part would be to concede that the short tunnel option shown in the exhibition was a done deal and the only thing at issue was mitigation of the schemes most injurious aspects.
In fact “There is an alternative view” as the Alliance foot soldier said handing out another flyer to another visitor.
Adding to the accusations of a manipulated process were the exhibition graphics, which were at times just as misleading potentially as a Tudor portrait of the last Plantagenet king and former car park rough sleeper, with added hump back and disabled arm. In particular, the computer generated drive through of the scheme on closer inspection raised as many questions as it answered.
Leaving aside the disappointment at not being able to grab a gamepad to accelerate your supercar of choice through the tunnel, drifting around the roundabout at the Countess Junction before accelerating again to take the tunnel from the opposite direction, in these days of photo realistic backgrounds on the PS4, the graphics looked as if they belonged to an incarnation of Grand [Heritage] Theft Auto from somewhere back in the Silicon Dark Ages, circa 2002.
That lack of computer horsepower might also account for the lack of other traffic in the simulation. Apart from the Post Modernly ironic appearance of the occasional White Van Man on the VGA version of the A303, there was so little traffic to be seen in any of the graphics on display, moving or still, that the casual visitor might be left wondering why Highways England wanted to go to the trouble and estimated £1.6 billion expense, of boring a tunnel and cutting dual carriage way access roads across the World Heritage Site in the first place. Where were the images of the new road at peak traffic flow?
More to the point, where is the Off Road Mode where you can take a spin up the Stonehenge Avenue on a quad bike or Time Team branded Landrover Disco’? Perhaps that will be on sale soon in the English Heritage Stonehenge Visitor Center/Shop?
[Video courtesy of Highways England.]
Even when the A303 was owned just by White Van Man, key questions remain, such as where in all the images of the proposals, moving and still, were the representations of the “indicative permanent” fence lines shown on the detailed maps of the scheme?
These were either so well camouflaged that no-one would notice they were there, or the fences had been omitted deliberately and the actual scheme was in reality a prison, trapping cars on a tarmac travelator where the occupants roar past an icon of World Heritage without seeing it, to reach English Heritage’s “mythical west” of King Arthur and Merlin at Tintagel, the surfing beaches of Cornwall and Rick Stein’s fish restaurants, a few minutes faster, while at the same time preventing walkers from enjoying a summer picnic on the bucolic grassy banks of the dual carriageway.
Returning to the real world, outside in the courtyard the three aspects of Charles the First continued to gaze down on demonstrator and public alike and a historians thoughts turned to the idea that culture can always be disposed of for a price. Against that background this little exhibition of industrial graphics and industrial scale political and engineering wishful thinking, could, in its way, herald a development which would in its way have as much impact on the reputation and cultural history of great Britain as the “Parliamentary Act for the Sale of the Late Kings Goods”. The act of Parliament which scattered the king’s art collection to the four winds to collectors who were prepared to pay cash.
On Thursday, as the protesters from the Stonehenge Alliance drifted away from the phony fight of the consultation in ones and twos into the chilly March afternoon, they vowed to muster again for the Spring Solstice. One of their number, George, commenting ruefully that he had been protesting about threats to Stonehenge since 1972, forty six years ago.
There are few people who would resist at least a small bet that George could live to see yet another Stonehenge scheme to protest about in another forty six years. This conclusion is reached partly because of the trail of broken road scheme dreams which lie across the Stonehenge landscape already; partly because of the legal, environmental financial and political risks of the current project, which the consultation has omitted entirely and partly because the government minister in charge of delivering the Stonehenge tunnel is Chris Grayling. At least he is at the time of writing.
As can be seen from the placard shown above, the Stonehenge Alliance campaigners do not have a high opinion of Mr Grayling, but then neither do many other people, including some from his own side of the political fence. People such as neo-conservative journalist and commentator for the Spectator and website Conservative Home, Douglas Murray. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, Mr Murray described Mr Grayling as,
“…a political buffoon, unsure of what he is saying and with little idea of how to say it.”
The first Lord Chancellor not to have a Law degree in half a millennium, and Conservative Party Chairman for between twenty seven seconds and 10 minutes [accounts differ] after his appointment was announced mistakenly on Twitter during Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent accident prone cabinet reshuffle, arch Brexiteer Mr Grayling is also the MP previously best known for trying to sell prison training to Saudi Arabia until it was cancelled by his successor, limiting legal aid to prisoners in a way which was ruled unlawful by the court of appeal and trying, once again unlawfully, to limit prisoners access to books.
Thus Mr Grayling has form with the courts, which is where the real battle over the Stonehenge tunnel will most likely end up being fought. However, that could be a good thing. The courts make their decisions based on evidence and the Law; including the Government’s legal obligations under the World Heritage Convention, not on an allegedly one sided presentation of unconvincing graphics and wishful thinking about the hydrology of chalk downland.
That said, for any archaeologist or heritage expert taking the long view and concerned that the decisions of today might be seen in years to come as a dereliction of an ethical duty to protect the past for the future, there is the worrying precedent in the events of 1660.
When King Charles II returned to claim his throne the 1660 “Act of Indemnity and Oblivion”, which declared a general amnesty for acts committed during the Commonwealth, omitted the sale of the Kings art collection from the pardon. The result was that as much as possible of the former Royal collection was seized back from the short lived new owners without compensation.
That particular turn around in political ideology and cultural opinion took just ten years. About as long as it will take to get the planning permissions and to build the A303 upgrade. But whereas in 1660 it was possible to take back an internationally important painting unharmed, the critics say, no such happy ending is available to the irreplaceable archaeology of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site once it has been surface stripped, leveled, tunneled, tarmacked and neon lit.
And therein lies a particularly stark warning for English Heritage, Historic England and the National Trust, who are also hovering on the flanks of the action like the army of the Stanley family at the Battle of Bosworth, not wanting to commit themselves to either Richard III or Henry Tudor for fear of a treason charge if trapped on the wrong side of history once the dust of battle has settled.
For the three heritage bodies, reputations for carrying out the conservation of the nations natural and human heritage, hard won over the course of more than a century in the case of the National Trust, could be lost, perhaps beyond recovery, in one scoop of a 360 degree tracked excavator on pristine and irreplaceable archaeology on the line of the A303.
Faced with all this the more far sighted participants on every side of the Stonehenge argument might conclude therefore that in some battles the greatest victory lies in both sides walking away from the debatable land without forcing a deeply damaging, and often fratricidal, fight.
You can make your own views known about the A303 Stonehenge upgrade at the Highways England on-line consultation page
You have until Monday 23 April to submit your comments.
Before you comment you might want to read the UNESCO report and recommendations on the A303 proposals which you can find here.
[This article was updated on 4 April 2018 to take account of the extension of the Highways England consultation]