A further Stonehenge inquiry took place this year, looking at the possible closure of some roads and paths. This morning Wiltshire Council announced that it has accepted the inspector’s recommendations, so another stage towards improving visitor facilities and the landscape around Stonehenge has been passed. I found some of the proceedings difficult to follow, so I had a word with someone at English Heritage, who was very helpful. Here is what happened as I see it.
The key thing is that road changes have been approved, including grassing over the road closest to the stones (part of the A344), allowing construction of the new visitor centre and facilities to go ahead, with a projected opening late in 2013. However, not everything the proponents asked for was granted, and some issues that are unlikely to go away will need to be resolved later down the line.
English Heritage had asked for the A344 closure, which was something the Department for Transport had to respond to. It also wanted to straighten the road north of Airman’s Corner as part of improving the safety of that dangerous junction, which will incorporate access to the new centre when it is done. This is known as a “stopping up order”, and the government agreed to it on October 31 (see map).
The other part of this vision had been proposed by Wiltshire Council, which by a quirk of law is the authority with powers to make such a suggestion, and is also empowered to take the decision. This proposal (a “road traffic order”, or RTO) created so much public concern, the council decided to distance itself and extend the public inquiry. The aim was to cut down general road traffic within the world heritage site, especially on routes that remain unmetalled – including Byway 12, a track that passes close to Stonehenge, crossing nearby archaeological sites at the Cursus to the north and barrows on Overton Down to the south (see map). It sounds straightforward, but it generated the sort of debate we’ve seen at previous Stonehenge inquiries: a mix of elegant thought, chaos, irrelevance and incomprehension, and sometimes just sheer boredom. In other words, it’s as fascinating as all the others.
The inspector, Alan Boyland (who had also reported on the stopping up order), decided that it would be a good thing to close the A344 between Stonehenge and Airman’s Corner to everyday traffic, but a bad thing to do the same to byways (“byways open to all traffic”, or BOATs). The latter was not what Wiltshire Council or English Heritage, or indeed some of the respondents to the inquiry, had hoped for. But it will have pleased many, including some Druids and Pagans, and off-road driving campaigners.
But the celebrations may be short lived (in Stonehenge terms, anyway). Some of the objections came from people who want to drive off-road vehicles through the world heritage site (and some, it might seem, from those who want to uphold the principle that anyone can drive wherever they like). Others, including many of the Pagans, came from people who want to park close to Stonehenge. These are quite different things, and both are problematic.
Firstly, the inspector upheld the right of people to drive along the byways. It might be “convenient and practical” for the likes of Wiltshire Council and English Heritage, who seek to improve the environment, to stop the driving, he said. But it would not be “suitable and appropriate”. He was not persuaded that “the gain to the overall amenity of the WHS would outweigh the loss of amenity of motorised users”.
That’s fair enough, but it is a conclusion that brings problems. The RTO was being sought because the principles are enshrined in the world heritage site management plan. This was created in 2000, after huge public consultation and debate, was revised and updated after more consultation in 2009, and is endorsed by national government (the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) – it is “a material consideration in planning decisions”. It cannot just be ignored. Policy 5c (there are over 40 policies of this type, listed under the headline Action Plan) reads:
“Vehicular access to Byways within the World Heritage Site should be restricted apart from access for emergency, operational and farm vehicles.”
Secondly, the inspector did not say that people had a right to park their vehicles on byways. He noted that near Stonehenge, Byway 12 “is frequently used for casual short-term parking” (there were 15–20 vehicles there yesterday, several looking rather long-term). But, he asked, “Is there a right to park on a BOAT?” No, he said. “The public right… is a right of passage”. While “a number of incidental uses may not be unlawful… [such as] temporary parking… this would not be a right in itself.”
So in both cases – driving and parking – there are going to be problems in future. This is partly because the continuing use of Byway 12 in these ways after the other changes have occurred, would be likely to become more intensive (as was seen briefly earlier this year when the A344 was temporarily closed at Stonehenge); partly it will be more disruptive to the majority of Stonehenge visitors, who would then otherwise be seeing the stones in a landscape devoid of car parks and normal road traffic (apart from that on the A303); and partly it will be much more dangerous, with access to the byway only from the fast moving and very busy A303.
And that’s very briefly summarising a huge mass of evidence, argument and review.