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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Stonehenge campaigners lose legal challenge over road tunnel

The group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site wanted to overturn a development consent order issued last July by Mark Harper, the transport secretary.

The Stonehenge tunnel will be built after campaigners lost a High Court challenge over the project.Mr Justice Holgate largely dismissed a claim by the Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) group, finding most parts of their case were “unarguable” — having no legal merit.

Mark Harper, the transport secretary, granted a development consent order(DCO) for the tunnel on the A303 in Wiltshire in July last year.

The A303 lies less than 200 metres from the famous prehistoric monument. The plans involve upgrading eight miles of the road from two lanes to four, including digging a two-mile tunnel.

An order previously granted by Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary, for the £1.7 billion project was quashed by the High Court in July 2021 amid concern about the environmental impact on the Unesco World Heritage Site. The campaigners brought fresh action over the new DCO in December.

During the hearing, David Wolfe KC, for SSWHS, said the government had failed to properly consider alternatives to the project and that campaigners believed National Highways had provided “fundamentally flawed” information that “failed to acknowledge the heritage harm”.

In his 50-page ruling, however, Mr Justice Holgate said ministers had “rightly focused on the relevant policies” and that the campaigners’ evidence “provides no basis for undermining that conclusion”.

One part of the legal action, regarding the Department for Transport’s approach to an environmental impact assessment, will be determined at a later date.

At the hearing, James Strachan KC, for the DfT, said the government concluded that the project was “consistent with the UK’s obligations” under the World Heritage Convention and that it would work with advisory bodies to minimise harm.

Ministers insist the benefits “outweighed the harms” of the scheme, including the “less than substantial harm to heritage assets”.

The A303 is a congestion hotspot with drivers heading to and from the West Country often stuck in long queues during peak holiday periods. The scheme is designed to ease these problems and remove the “distraction” of traffic for those walking round Stonehenge.

Unesco has previously threatened to strip Stonehenge of its world heritage status over the proposal. In September the United Nations cultural body said the government should make amendments to the plan for a tunnel near Stonehenge or “not proceed”.

It said that the World Heritage Site is at risk of being put on its “danger list” unless changes are made to the proposed project.

In 2021 Liverpool lost its status after concerns over the redevelopment of its waterfront. It was only the third site in almost 50 years to lose the title, which brings with it UN funding.

Shapps gave the green light to the project in November 2020 despite advice from the Planning Inspectorate that it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the area. The SSWHS alliance successfully challenged his decision in the High Court.

David Bullock, National Highways project director for the A303 Stonehenge scheme, said: “We welcome the High Court’s decision and wait for conclusion of the legal proceedings. It is a positive step forward and would mean that at long last we can progress solving the issues of the A303 near Stonehenge.”

He added: “It represents decades of working with our stakeholders, heritage bodies and local communities to create the best possible solution.”

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England said: “After years of uncertainty, we are very pleased that the court has upheld the secretary of state’s decision, bringing us all one step closer to realising the ambitions of the A303 Stonehenge improvement scheme.

“With more than 50 possible schemes explored over the course of 30 years, we firmly believe that putting much of the busy, noisy and intrusive road into a tunnel past Stonehenge is right for the site. This is a once in a generation opportunity to restore this internationally important landscape, which has been of great importance to people for over 5,000 years.”


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