Legal action launched on Stonehenge road decision – further update

By Kate Fielden
20th February 2021

Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site, a new organisation set up by individual supporters of The Stonehenge Alliance, has instructed counsel and Leigh Day to investigate the lawfulness of the Secretary of State’s decision to approve the A303 Stonehenge dual carriageway.  A letter was sent on Friday 27th November to the Department for Transport outlining its concerns.

To make this possible, campaigners launched an appeal on CrowdJustice to raise £50,000 to cover the initial costs of the legal action.

The decision by Grant Shapps to approve the road on 12 November, despite a recommendation by the Examination Panel that it be refused, sent shock waves around the world.

Tom Holland, Stonehenge Alliance President, expressed his backing for the legal action:

I fully back the move to test whether Grants Shapps acted legally in approving this highly wasteful and destructive road scheme. The Government has ignored advice from both UNESCO [6] and the independent panel who presided over a six-month examination. To have won the arguments based on reason and evidence, and then to have them overruled on a ministerial whim, shows just how broken the roads approval process is.

“I urge everyone who cares about the Stonehenge World Heritage Site to support this legal action. There is still a chance to stop the bulldozers moving in and vandalising our most precious and iconic prehistoric landscape.

For the full background to the Stonehenge tunnel issue, click here.


High Court date for Stonehenge road decision

Save Stonehenge WHS Ltd. (SSWHS) [1] heard this week [2] that a three-day High Court hearing will take place from 23rd to 25th June. SSWHS is challenging Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to go ahead with the highly damaging A303 dual carriageway through the World Heritage Site (WHS).[3] His decision was taken against the advice of a panel of five senior Planning Inspectors (the Examining Authority) who formally examined the scheme in 2019.[4]

The Inspectors considered that the scheme’s benefits “would not outweigh the harm arising from the excavation of a deep, wide cutting and other engineering works, within the WHS and its setting, of a scale and nature not previously experienced historically in this ‘landscape without parallel’”. [5] UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, who gave the WHS its international designation in 1986, has also condemned the road scheme.[6]

The complexity of the case has obliged SSWHS to raise its CrowdJustice funding target for the legal challenge, including the three-day hearing. [7].   An opinion piece on the A303 legal challenge dated 5 May 2021 can be found on this page on the CPRE national website.

Kate Fielden, Hon Secretary the Stonehenge Alliance and SSWHS, said:

“Having a date for the court hearing gives us something to aim for in preparing for our challenge to Grant Shapps’ outrageous decision. We urge our supporters to help us to continue the fight to save our famous World Heritage Site from this appalling scheme. There can be no more iconic symbol of the global heritage of mankind than Stonehenge and we have a duty to safeguard it for future generations.”


  1. Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site is a company established by individual supporters of the Stonehenge Alliance to take forward the legal action.  The Stonehenge Alliance supporter-organisations are: Ancient Sacred Landscape Network; Campaign to Protect Rural England; Friends of the Earth; Rescue; the British Archaeological Trust; and Transport Action Network.
  2. The date was confirmed on Wednesday 24 Feb after a procedural hearing was held to plan for the main hearing on Tuesday 23 Feb.
  3. The Transport Secretary’s decision can be found on the Planning Inspectorate website.
  4. The Examining Authority’s Report and recommendations are seen here
  5. For reasons for the Examining Authority’s recommendations to refuse the scheme, and a timeline of events see the Stonehenge Alliance website.
  6. UNESCO World Heritage Committee Decision 2019.
  7. The crowdfunder is on the CrowdJustice website.

17 February 2021
Judicial review hearing into Stonehenge road project ordered

Campaigners have secured a hearing in their judicial review challenge about the decision to allow a new A303 dual carriageway and tunnel that would cause significant harm to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS).

A High Court judge has decided that legal arguments, concerning Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to allow the eight-mile road project with a two-mile tunnel past Stonehenge, must be dealt with at a “rolled up” hearing at which the Court will decide both whether the claim is arguable and, if so, whether it succeeds.

Now the claim by Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS), a group of individual supporters of the Stonehenge Alliance, will proceed to hearing at the High Court in a matter of months. There will be a preliminary hearing next week to set the timetable for that process.

If the Court ultimately rules that Mr Shapps’ decision was unlawful, he will have to rethink the hugely controversial road project. Permission for the scheme was granted against the advice of the Examining Authority (ExA), a five-person panel of expert inspectors, who examined the application by Highways England for the Amesbury to Berwick Down draft Development Consent Order under section 37 of the Planning Act 2008.

The inspectors said the scheme, with deep cuttings and tunnel entrances within the WHS, would permanently harm the integrity of the WHS and seriously harm its authenticity. It is argued that the scheme is also contrary to the Wiltshire Core Strategy and the requirements of the World Heritage Convention.

Mr Shapps agreed with the ExA that the development will harm visual and spatial relationships and settings in the ancient landscape of the World Heritage Site but concluded that the level of harm would not be substantial and would be outweighed by the public benefit.

At the public examination, the Stonehenge Alliance and a number of other parties argued that the World Heritage Site ought to be protected in its entirety. However, Mr Shapps is reportedly satisfied the Development has been designed to accord with the National Planning Policy Statement for National Networks (NPSNN) and that reasonable mitigation has been included to minimise harm to the landscape.

The Stonehenge site was declared by the World Heritage Committee (WHC) to be of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) in 1986. Owing to its remarkable complex of prehistoric monuments and sites it is considered to be a “landscape without parallel”.

SSWHS says that an alternative plan for the road, namely a longer tunnel that would cause less harm, was unlawfully discarded and not considered by Mr Shapps. SSWHS makes its case that the decision to allow the road is unlawful on the following grounds:
• Harm to each heritage asset within the project should have been weighed in the balance, instead of considering the “historic environment” as a whole.
• None of the advice provided by Historic England provided the evidential basis for the Secretary of State’s conclusion of “less than substantial harm” to any of the assets impacted by the project.
• He allowed purported “heritage benefits” to be weighed against heritage harm, before deciding whether that overall harm was “substantial” or “less than substantial”, which was unlawful under the National Policy Statement
• He failed to take into account that development consent would breach the World Heritage Convention
• He left out of account mandatory material considerations: the breach of various local policies; the impact of his finding of heritage harm which undermined the business case for the proposal and the existence of at least one alternative

Tom Holland, Stonehenge Alliance President, said:
“This is very good news. We have always believed that the Government’s intention to build a great gash of concrete and tarmac through the World Heritage Site is a dereliction of its responsibilities, and we are delighted that there will now be the opportunity to test this conviction in a court of law. We urge Grant Shapps to review his decision, and act to conserve rather than vandalise this most precious of prehistoric landscapes.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said:
“There is clearly a huge level of public outrage against, what is in effect, an existential threat to one of the most treasured symbols of British history. However, this legal case must proceed on points of procedural error. Today’s decision means that our client’s case and the Government’s decisionmaking process will now be fully scrutinised by the Courts.”

Campaigners continue to fundraise for their legal action.
Leigh Day has instructed barristers David Wolfe QC (Matrix chambers) and Victoria Hutton (39 Essex chambers) to act on SSWHS’s behalf.

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