ICOMOS and UNESCO are visiting Stonehenge this week, to ponder the current set of road tunnel proposals. A lot has changed since we were last thinking about such a tunnel. Despite stories in the press, these changes add up to a much better proposition than the one that had, in principle, been accepted a decade ago.
The government has apparently promised funding for an unprecedented 2.9km-long bored tunnel and further beneficial works. After so many years of failed projects, I still find that promise difficult to believe, welcome as it is. However, I was assured it really is true by National Trust and Historic England representatives on a helpful tour put on for Council for British Archaeology trustees (who kindly invited me along) a couple of weeks ago.
A 2.9km-long tunnel is (in my opinion) the best of three options, none of which has been examined in detail and for none of which precise routes have been agreed. So talk of threats to archaeological remains at Blick Mead (which is a kilometre beyond reach of any proposed roadworks, not “within 20 metres”), and even vague comparisons to the destruction wreaked on heritage by ISIS, is premature and quite silly. The National Trust and Historic England are not heritage terrorists.
Here is where we are now:
- Former, much-derided facilities close to Stonehenge have been removed, and the A344 road that passed close to the stones has been closed and grassed over.
- A new concept of “outstanding universal value” (OUV) has been introduced to world heritage site thinking. In the past, greater conservation emphasis was given to the area around Stonehenge (known as the “Stonehenge bowl”) than the rest of the world heritage site. OUV gives equal weight to the entire area. This means the conservation demands that have to be met along any future road route are greater than they were. (Thus, scored this way, the approved 2004 tunnel loses its benefits, and comes out “neutral” – no point).
- Traffic on the A303, the main road passing through the Stonehenge world heritage site, continues to grow, and major delays are becoming commoner.
- The government, in a pre-election pledge, says it is determined to improve traffic flow along the entire route of the A303.
- As part of that project, the government says it is prepared to fund works through the Stonehenge world heritage site. Option 3 (A1–E on the map above) includes a 2.9km tunnel past the stones; beyond the western tunnel entrance, the present A303 would be moved south to leave clear land around the important Winterbourne Stoke barrow group.
- In a joint statement, the National Trust and Historic England have described this option as “a huge improvement on the previous 2.1km tunnel scheme and in line with the initial preliminary assessment work which suggests that a tunnel of at least 2.9km might have a substantive beneficial impact on the World Heritage property, subject to detailed design.”
On available evidence, I can’t find any reason to disagree with this statement. What is on offer is extraordinary. It would greatly extend the already radical improvements to the immediate surroundings at Stonehenge, and to the world heritage site as a whole.