How much is Stonehenge really “cancelled”?
So let’s take a more reflective view of yesterday’s announcement that the proposed Stonehenge visitor centre has been cancelled, starting with what the Treasury actually said. Danny Alexander’s speech did not hold back on criticism of the former Labour government – and by association, of Alistair Darling, one of the wisest chancellors we have had – as if the recession, the collapse of banks and the national debt, were all simple matters of party politics. A written statement from HM Treasury (headed “Action to tackle poor value for money and unfunded spending commitments”) has a similar tone. “Projects have been cancelled where they were not affordable”, it begins, “did not represent good value for money, or where they did not reflect the Government’s priorities”. Attributed to Alexander is this comment: “As a result of the poor decisions made by the previous Government, I have taken the decision to cancel certain projects that do not represent good value for money.” Stonehenge Visitor Centre heads the list of 12 “projects cancelled”, the only one belonging to the Department for Culture Media and Sport. “All Treasury spending approvals between 01 January and the election were reassessed”, says a note, and a further note specific to Stonehenge adds, “Government funding for this programme has been withdrawn. If non-government funding is identified approval to proceed could be given.” What none of this says, is that cancelling the Stonehenge project will not save the government £25m. English Heritage, in a brief statement issued yesterday, pulled no punches in a pointed first sentence: “English Heritage is obviously extremely disappointed that the £10 million promised by Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 13 May, 2009, will not now be forthcoming.” That’s £10m – less than half the £25m savings promised by Alexander to parliament – tabled by the previous government one week short of a year before the general election. While Alexander was misleading the nation, the new culture minister with responsibility for heritage and tourism, John Penrose, was defending the cut. You might think that a cheap but imaginative scheme to deeply improve Stonehenge in time for the 2012 Olympics, a scheme that is all but finished and is widely supported, was the most significant thing the government could back to support heritage and tourism in difficult times, and to send out appropriate messages here and internationally. Not so. “The costs and benefits of this project”, said Penrose, apparently unaware that its cost to government was less than half what Alexander had told parliament, “had to be considered in the light of the current financial picture”. Yes, cuts have to be made, and noone has a right to claim special treatment. But we do have a right to be fairly represented in parliament. Stonehenge has had enough of being used as a political toy. So, moving on, clearly we can take heart that contrary to what Alexander told parliament, he has not “cancelled” the Stonehenge project at all: “If non-government funding is identified approval to proceed could be given.” Non-government funding is already being pursued for over half the project, so if that can be extended successfully to the whole, there is no apparent reason why the centre should not be built (the outstanding issues being mainly consents required to close small bits of road and to remove road traffic from trackways). So we greatly look forward to hearing what English Heritage has to say about the future of the project, after its commissioners meet on June 30. This is probably cock-up rather than conspiracy, but it can’t help public perceptions that such an announcement about Stonehenge should be made in the week it appears with Dr Who on the cover of Radio Times, and just four days before the great annual midsummer jamboree attracting many thousands of visitors. And here’s a great graphic from vintagedept (though having read the above, you will know to read his little black dot as “enlarged over 20x”):