The Stonehenge Tunnel Debate – the good, the bad, and the ugly

22 11 2020

Plans for the two-mile road tunnel through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Stonehenge approved by Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, on the 12th November made major international news recently. Amid such a blizzard of information and attention it is sometimes hard to discern the truth. 

There are countless news features, websites, and forums discussing the tunnel – and although some are more objective than others, one has to always be mindful of the (hidden) agenda of the particular newspaper, website, blog, or forum – and in the case of mainstream media, who is funding them. Here, the intention is to provide a clear overview of the facts and a summary of both sides of the debate. There is so much heated rhetoric out there – the various stake-holders inevitably dig in and defend their position, sometimes without being able to see the other side. Within the echo chamber of social media especially, it is easy to become entrenched within a particular paradigm, one that reaffirms prejudices and demonises those who do not share it – one could call it ‘tunnel vision’.

So, first, let’s take a quick look at the facts. 

Key information

  • The so-called ‘Stonehenge Tunnel’ has been approved, costing around £1.7 billion. The proposals were first submitted in 1991.
  • In 2014, the Government announced that it would invest in a fully bored tunnel of at least 2.9km to remove much of the A303 road from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
  • Following a process of consultations, planning, design nd public examination, funding for a two-mile tunnel was confirmed in the March 2020 Budget and agreement from the Secretary of State for Transport that the tunnel could go ahead was confirmed on 12 November 2020.
  • The A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down upgrade will include: eight miles of dual carriageway; a tunnel at least two miles long underneath the World Heritage Site; a new bypass to the north of the village of Winterbourne Stoke; junctions with the A345 and A360 either side of the World Heritage Site.
  • Fieldwork is due to start in late spring next year, with the main five-year construction phase expected to start by 2023.

Now, let’s consider the arguments for the planned tunnel.

For

  • Restoring the integrity of the site: ‘English Heritage wants to see the monument reconnected to its ancient landscape and the negative impact of roads within the World Heritage Site reduced. Great strides to achieve this vision have been made in recent years, including the removal of the old Stonehenge visitor facilities and the A344 road from the landscape.’
  • Removing the pollution (visual, auditory, olfactory) caused by the traffic on the A303. English Heritage advocates the tunnel, so that the ‘intended landscape setting’ can be ‘understood  and appreciated in context, without the experience being ruined by traffic.’ Certainly, the removal of the A344 and the shoddy former visitor centre, with its notorious underpass, has had a significant positive impact on the site. Seeing the turfed-over section of the A344 is heartening to see, and it considerably enhances the area around the Hele Stone especially, which used to be cheek-by-jowl with the traffic and the fence.
  • A boost to the economy.  Business Live claims ‘Stonehenge tunnel could bring £4bn boost to South West economy’, through increased visitor numbers, footfall, and cash-flow.

Now, let us consider the arguments against the plans.

Against

  • Increased traffic jams and pollution caused by the major disruption of the busy A303.
  • The impact of tourism on a major attraction caused by this during the ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has seen a massive drop in overseas visitors, and many businesses struggling to survive. Would international visitors want to visit a building site? Their first impressions of Stonehenge would be ugly roadworks and interminable traffic jams.
  • Destruction of the integrity of the site and its priceless, irreplaceable archaeology. Rescue Archaeology said it was: ‘A sad day for our archaeological heritage’. In a letter to The Times, academics said the proposed tunnel would cause “permanent irreversible harm”.
  • Whose  intended landscape? English Heritage’s wish ‘to see the stone circle returned to its intended landscape setting’ can be challenged – what is the ‘intended landscape’ they describe? For millennia humans have been altering the landscape. The ‘countryside’ is very much an artificial construct (as WG Hoskins and Simon Schama have pointed out). Are EH planning to return the landscape to unenclosed wild wood and heath? Unlikely. Aesthetically, it would be closer to the aesthetic of a country park, with demarcated routes, manicured turf, and excessive signage. 
  • Exclusive access to a site bequeathed to the nation. English Heritage already earn millions from the site – it is a vital ‘cash cow’ that supports all their other sites, many of which remain free – but the tunnel would deprive travellers in the area of even a glimpse, a view that makes a journey along the A303 special and one of Britain’s best-loved roads.
  • Fossil-fuel vehicles to be phased out. If one of the main arguments for the tunnel is the reduction of traffic noise and fumes, it is important to consider the recent government plans to ban the sale of all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030. A stream of virtually silent electric vehicles will not impair the site in the same way, and would be less destructive to the environment that carbon emitting vehicles bottle-necked into a tunnel, or slowed down into traffic jams by its construction and ensuing delays. 
  • An ill-use of vital resources. In a time of pandemic and with the looming impact of Brexit on Britain’s food supplies, £1.7 billion could be better spent on hospitals, vaccine-distribution, and food banks.
  • Cronyism. One could also ask who will be receiving these lucrative contracts? Is it just another example of cronyism, with those in government creating spurious contracts for their well-connected friends? If that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory, consider what has happened with the massive PPE contracts handed out this year – often resulting in a vast waste of tax-payers money at a time when countless lives depend upon such resources.

Conclusion

Having considered both sides of the debate, and looked at all the available facts, it is clear there are far more negatives than positives. Considering the huge outcry from both the public and experts, and the massive public relations disaster it has already caused common sense would suggest a reconsideration of the plans. Perhaps the best thing now – to limit damage and further expense – is simply to bury them. It would not be the first time such ambitious plans have been jettisoned – during the 1970s a major tunnel project was planned for the city of Bath. The idea was to channel all the traffic assailing the city underground, yet after expensive plans, and consultations, the project was deemed non-viable and forgotten, and it remains in the archive as a curiousity – one of history’s white elephants.

References:
The Stonehenge tunnel: ‘A monstrous act of desecration is brewing’ – THE GUARDIAN
Stonehenge tunnel ‘would destroy 500,000 artefacts’ – THE TIMES
A303 Stonehenge DCO granted – A sad day for our archaeological heritage – RESCUE ARCHAELOGICAL TRUST
The proposed name of the Stonehenge tunnel has been announced. THE HERITAGE TRUST
Why a Newly Approved Plan to Build a Tunnel Beneath Stonehenge Is So Controversial – THE SMITHSONIAN
Controversial $2 Billion Tunnel Near Stonehenge Approved, Causing Backlash – HYPERALLERGIC
Rival factions battle for soul of Stonehenge – THE TIMES
A303 Stonehenge Tunnel explained: Plans, route design and more – THE SALISBURY JOURNAL
STONEHENGE & A303 – ENGISH HERITAGE
Stonehenge tunnel could bring £4bn boost to South West economy – BUSINESS LIVE
The Conservative Case for the Stonehenge Tunnel | Henry Dixon-Clegg – THE MALLARD
The Knotty Problem of the A303 and Stonehenge. – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG

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