What are the issues surrounding the proposed Stonehenge Tunnel?

28 01 2020

The Stonehenge tunnel is a proposed tunnel or sunken dual carriageway drawn up by Highways England to upgrade the A303 road, which currently passes within 165 meters of Stonehenge. Beginning with the closure of the A344 road, the Stonehenge tunnel would complete the removal of traffic from around the site by redirecting the A303 under Stonehenge. The project aims on one hand to improve the landscape around the monument, freeing tourists from traffic that detracts from the ancient wonder of the site and on the other improving the safety on the A303, resulting in smoother travel for anyone travelling to and from the south-west of England.

Stonehenge Tunnel

When it comes to the initiation and completion of this project there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

The proposed tunnel already has a long history of both bureaucratic and archaeological issues. Way back in 1995 was the first time it was proposed to build a tunnel for the A303 underneath the World Heritage Site. However, it did not take long for plans to be criticised for seemingly disregarding the archaeological significance of the Wessex landscape. It was suggested that the tunnel approach would cut in to a prehistoric track way between Stonehenge and a nearby river, resulting in the loss of archaeological remains which would harmfully affect the authenticity of the site and more than cancel out the benefits of the proposed tunnel. After years of bureaucratic wrangling the proposal was finally accepted by the Government on 12 January 2017. Today, the tunnel remains mired in controversy and the arguments against it haven’t changed much since the idea’s inception in 1995. The main issues with the proposal seem to be its staunch opposition from several parties, the complexity of the job and its price.

Opposition

The staunchest opposition to the tunnel is represented by the Stonehenge Alliance campaign group ‘a group of non-governmental organisations and individuals that seeks enhancements to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site’. This group includes environmentalists, archaeologists, residents and have recently repeated their belief that the proposed tunnel “would cause irreparable damage to the landscape”. They believe that the world heritage site of Stonehenge should be considered far wider than the barrow on which the stones stand:

The whole site, extending to beyond the horizons around the famous stones themselves, is c. 5.4 km across. All of it makes up a “huge ancient complex” that holds many secrets yet to be discovered. Yet the proposal is for a 2.9km (1.8 mile) tunnel… would result in at least 1.6 km of above-ground 21st-century road engineering…

All archaeology in the construction zones would be destroyed and the A303 would become the largest ever human intervention in an area fashioned and revered by over a hundred generations of our ancestors.

Cost

In 2018 Highways England proposed a cost of £1.6 billion and a planned start date in 2021 was indicated with the tunnel’s planned opening being in 2026. Unsurprisingly, this cost has created yet more opposition in both the commons and amongst the general public especially since the project was due to be privately funded, but now will be funded publicly since the government dismissed a ‘PFI financing model’ in the 2018 Budget.

Complexity

To protect the landscape, the plans are ambitiously complex. Not only is the job of sinking a dual carriageway a complex starting point but the project also proposes:

  • Four “green bridges” for wildlife to cross the dual carriageway.
  • Restoring areas of chalk grassland at Yarnbury Castle on Berwick Down through to the south of Parsonage Down national nature reserve.
  • 100ha of new chalk grassland to promote biodiversity in the area.
  • A viaduct at the River Till
  • Moving the junction between the A303 and A360 600m west

Adding a bureaucratic layer to the complexity is the fact that  all UK tier 1 contractors have refused to bid the job believing the current approach to be too complex with its shallow tunnel, complex geology, rabid opposition,  and huge public scrutiny because of both the cost and the environmental concerns.

Of course, all these issues are interlinked. The complexity of the job is a demanded by the opposition to protect the natural beauty of the area, but the complexity pushes up the price and then the price creates yet more opposition. It seems to be a vicious cycle. When it comes to the initiation and completion of this project there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

Stonehenge Tunnel Relevant Links:

The Knotty Problem of the A303 and Stonehenge. Stonehenge News Blog

Stonehenge Alliance calls for A303 tunnel to be scrapped in open letter to government. Salisbury Journal

Ministers do battle over £2billion Stonehenge tunnel. Daily Mail

Treasury pushes for £2bn Stonehenge tunnel to be axed. Financial Times

Reuniting the Stonehenge landscape and improving your journey. English Highways

Stonehenge and the A303 Joint Response. English Heritage

Stonehenge A303 Road Improvement Scheme. Historic England

A group of non-governmental organisations and individuals that seeks enhancements to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. The Stonehenge Alliance

Stonehenge tunnel ‘at risk’ due to funding uncertainty. Construction News

The Stonehenge News Blog
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