Formal examination of Highways England’s A303 Stonehenge scheme has been completed and the Transport Secretary’s decision is awaited (13 November 2020).
The A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down Expressway Scheme would cross the famous Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS), designated for its outstanding complex of prehistoric monuments and sites. It would continue west, through fine chalk landscape. CPRE has joined the Stonehenge Alliance of NGOs to oppose the proposals.
Map showing the route of the proposed Expressway and tunnel across the WHS.
What is proposed and impacts on archaeology
The A303 preferred route, including a c.3km (c.1.8 miles) twin-bore tunnel, was announced in September 2017. Both tunnel portals would avoid National Trust land. The east tunnel entrances would sit within a Bronze Age barrow group and the ‘Nile Clumps’, threatening the integrity of the ancient Avenue and its enjoyment by visitors. The nearby Mesolithic site of Blick Mead would be dominated by a massive flyover, which would also impact adversely on Amesbury Abbey (Grade I Listed) and its Registered Park, as well as the Amesbury Conservation Area.
The west tunnel portals would lie south of the present A303, near Normanton Gorse wood and not far from an RSPB Reserve, noted for rare stone curlews. Thence the new 4-lane highway would continue in a deep cutting and below a major A360 interchange just outside the boundary of the WHS involving two roundabouts with slip roads and a bridge over the A303 between them. The cutting within the WHS would pass close beside the enigmatic ‘Wilsford Shaft’, apparently used for ritual purposes or as a well (or both) throughout the Bronze Age, and possibly also during the Neolithic. Evaluation work in advance of the expressway has uncovered a Late Neolithic inhumation burial in this area and evidence of a probable settlement of the same date. This part of the WHS is also significant for its unique grouping of Neolithic long barrows located around the head of a dry valley, including the upstanding monument after which Longbarrow Roundabout is named. Already crossed by the A303, the physical division of this focal area of the pre-henge use of the landscape would be made far greater with a c.250 ft wide and 20 ft deep highway-cutting between the northernmost of these long barrows, interrupting the integrity of their placement and original purpose.
The scheme would impact adversely on the setting of the WHS and key archaeological sites within it; and could destroy as yet unidentified archaeological remains. The new, dualled A303 would continue, with a bridge over the River Till, as a northern bypass for Winterbourne Stoke, re-joining the present A303 via the southern boundary of Parsonage Down National Nature Reserve.
There would be local inconvenience and congestion during the c.5 years of construction and afterwards at times of tunnel closure.
Work undertaken to date has revealed more information about the presence of fractured and fissured phosphatic ‘soft’ chalk, and a fluctuating water table which can reach the surface at times. These factors give rise to serious concerns about tunnel construction impacts with possible alterations to groundwater flow and potential damage to archaeology owing to vibrations and settlement arising from tunnel boring.
Aspirations and economics
There are doubts about the aspirations for and value-for-money of the scheme.
Local people hope to be rid of traffic congestion and concomitant rat-running at busy times. Any improvement to traffic flow would, however, be temporary since it is acknowledged that road widening induces more traffic. See, e.g., a 2017 CPRE publication on the subject (reference below), which also demonstrates that widened roads rarely bring hoped-for economic benefits and increased housing to a region away from the road corridor.
The capital cost of the scheme was set by HMG in September 2017 at an upper limit of £1.6bn and is now estimated to be £1.9bn. (Estimated cost was £1.3bn in December 2014). Annual tunnel maintenance costs would be c.£7m. PF2 was to be sought but this form of financing has now been ruled out by the Chancellor. Economic assessment conclusions in Highways England’s application show the scheme to be low value for money with the inclusion of the so-called heritage ‘benefits’ of the tunnel; otherwise it would be poor value for money.
It is of particular concern that UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee condemned the road scheme in 2019. In July 2017 and again in July 2018, the Committee advised the Government to explore options for the A303 that would not damage the WHS or its outstanding universal value. In view of the Government’s continuing disregard of UNESCO’s advice, we may see Stonehenge placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, unless the scheme is halted and/or substantially revised.
Formal examination of the road Scheme
The Infrastructure Planning Inspectorate’s website gives details of the examination, including a document library. The Examination, by a panel of planning Inspectors (the Examining Authority) was mainly in writing with some issue-specific hearings in Salisbury which the public were able to attend.
The Stonehenge Alliance, supported by CPRE, submitted numerous Written Representations to the Examination on topics including planning considerations, biodiversity, transport and economics, tranquillity, hydrogeology, and the historic environment. These have been placed on the Inspectorate’s website here (click on documents and type “Stonehenge Alliance” in the “Filter” box). All Examination documents, including representations from other groups and individuals can be seen in the “Documents” location. Probably of most interest at this stage is our “Summary of Case” which can be read here. In addition to our written representations, the Alliance was represented and spoke to its written evidence at most of the issue-specific hearings.
Delayed decision on the Scheme
The Examination ended in October 2019 and, following the panel’s recommendation, a decision by the Transport Secretary was expected in April 2020. His decision was first delayed until 17 July 2020 since (unspecified) more work was to be undertaken.
A further delay until 13 November 2020 was announced on 16 July, owing to a major new find of huge pits partially encircling Durrington Walls henge in the NE corner of the WHS. The Secretary of State wishes to hear the views of Interested Parties on the implications of the find for the road proposals before coming to his decision.
We will be responding to this request, having already pointed out to him that the hitherto unknown existence of such an important find demonstrates that other unknown and important archaeological sites could lie partly within the Expressway trace and that the WHS and its setting should not be compromised by road engineering.
Climate change implications
Other events have arisen since completion of the Scheme Examination, to some of which we have already drawn the Transport Secretary’s attention.
On 27 February 2020 a judgement against a 3rd runway at Heathrow was won by climate change campaigners, in part based on HMG’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This has implications for new road building and a challenge has now been brought by the Transport Action Network against HMG for its next Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), which includes the A303 Stonehenge Scheme.
Government advisers, such as the Office of Rail and Road, suggest that the roads investment strategy should be re-examined. The Committee on Climate Change, in its June 2020 Report said that, in terms of net zero carbon emissions, “we are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change”; and that “Overall, the Committee recommends that investments in low-carbon and climate adaptation infrastructure must be at the heart of measures to restore economic growth following COVID-19.” The report places emphasis on home working, stating that “higher investment in resilient digital technology including 5G and fibre broadband should therefore be prioritised over strengthening the roads network.”
For latest information on A303 Stonehenge, please view the Stonehenge Alliance website and social media here.
Further information: documents and videos
Highways England has produced a booklet on the A303 Stonehenge scheme.
A video, introduced by historian Tom Holland, shows leading British Prehistoric archaeologist Professor Mike Parker Pearson explaining why the road scheme would damage the WHS.
The 300+ scheme documents can be accessed on the Inspectorate’s website here.
The Stonehenge Alliance’s responses to consultations are here.
CPRE publication, “The End of the Road? Challenging the Road Building Consensus” can be read here.