JUDGE GREENLIGHTS A303 STONEHENGE UPGRADE BUT OPPONENTS PROMISE APPEAL

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A High Court Judge has dismissed all but one of the grounds the Stonehenge Alliance argued to stop the Highways England plan to build a tunnel and dual carriageway within the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.  The Alliance says it will seek leave to appeal the decision.

The campaign to prevent the Government roads body National Highways from building a tunnel and dual carriageway across the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site in Wiltshire has suffered a blow in the High Court in London as Mr Justice Holgate ruled that the decision of Transport Secretary Mark Harper to green light the controversial project was lawful

Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site [SSWHS], a limited company with three directors drawn from the Stonehenge Alliance which was formed to bring the case, had argued on eight grounds that Mr Harper’s decision to grant a Development Consent Order for the £1.3 billion [committed so far] project breached various heritage, environmental and procedural requirements. However,  over more than fifty pages Mr Justice Holgate, who had in July 2021 blocked a previous Development Consent Order for the project granted by Mr Harper’s predecessor as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, found that the case put by lawyers for the campaign at a three day hearing in December 2023 were not in fact arguable in Law.

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While recognising that the case was not deciding the merits of the A303 project, one way or the other, the decision was nonetheless met with dismay by the Save Stonehenge campaign.

John Adams, the chair of the Stonehenge Alliance and one of the directors of SSWHS, told the media,

“In the face of Government indifference to the harm this road will cause the World Heritage
Site, we had no choice but to bring this legal action. While this judgement is a huge blow and exposes the site to National Highway’s state sponsored vandalism, we will continue the
fight.”

Highlighting the political nature of the campaign, which goes to the heart of the Sunak government’s perceived pro car stance, Mr Adams added,

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“In the dying days of this Conservative Government, which has inflicted so much
damage on the country, we cannot let it destroy our heritage as well.”

While Tom Holland, historian, podcaster and president of the Stonehenge Alliance, said:

“This is a devastating loss, not just for everyone who has campaigned against the Government’s pig-headed plans for the Stonehenge landscape, but for Britain, for the world, and for subsequent generations.”

However, while a major blow to the campaign it is not yet inevitable that the project will go ahead.

There are still a number of legal processes which must play out before National Highways can send in the bulldozers and archaeologists on the Wiltshire downs.

In the first instance the Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site campaign has announced that it will seek leave to lodge an appeal against Mr Justice Holgate’s decision and the campaign has already launched a fundraising campaign to raise the fifteen thousand pounds needed in the first instance, with the expectation that a further forty thousand pounds might be required to fight the case to a conclusion.

Meanwhile Mr Justice Holgate stayed the decision on one of the grounds the campaigners argued, regarding the greenhouse gasses generated over the life of the project. This is because another legal case, this time relating to the A47 in Norfolk, brought by environmental campaigner Andrew Boswell, could yet result in the Secretary of State being forced to reconsider both projects.  This was a point which was echoed in a statement issued by Historic England in the name of its Chief Executive Duncan Wilson which otherwise broadly supported the decision of the judge.

Finally, in a General Election year, a controversial project which analysts suggest may ultimately cost more than £1.8 billion, which the Government’s own number crunchers at the National Audit Office found to have “a significantly lower benefit–cost ratio than is usual in road schemes” and where the Government’s Planning Inspectors found that planning consent should be withheld because the effects of the A303 tunnel and upgrade would “substantially and permanently harm the integrity of the WHS [World Heritage Site], now and in the future,” might well be vulnerable to a Chancellor of the Exchequer looking for spending cuts.

 

This article was updated on 21 February 2024 to clarify the legal status of the Save Stonehenge World heritage Site group, the money committed by National Highways to date and the projected ultimate cost of the A303 upgrade.

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