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22 July 2007
Stonehenge world heritage status at risk?

The British government is set to reject a £500m road scheme which is seen as vital to preserving the status of Stonehenge as a World Heritage site. A tunnel more than a mile long would have taken the A303 trunk road under the extensive prehistoric landscape in which the stone circle stands. A new visitor centre had also been planned. Despite 20 years of work by English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge, and several planning inquiries costing £25m, a senior government source said last week that the scheme was "simply far too expensive". Instead, the culture and transport departments are planning a far cheaper scheme for a new bypass road.
     The decision will be a blow to Sir Neil Cossons, the outgoing chairman of English Heritage. He said: "If this road project fails we shall have to wait many more years before there is another solution." Cossons, who has spent seven years in the job, added: "The new tunnel, the closure of other roads in the area around Stonehenge and the visitor centre should have been ready for 2012. It was timed for the Olympics."
     The tunnel would have made tourist access easier to Stonehenge, which attracts about 800,000 visitors a year. It would also have returned the 5,000-year-old monument to a grassland setting. Rejection means that the planned £67m visitor centre, from which mini-buses would have taken visitors to the site, will be shelved, as its location was dependent on the tunnel. It could also jeopardise the status of Stonehenge as a World Heritage site, awarded by Unesco in 1986. At the time, the United Nations cultural body told the government that it must improve access and take nearby roads away from the site. Unesco will consider delisting Stonehenge at its next meeting in February.
     The government’s preferred solution now is for the stretch of the A303 that at present passes close to the south of the stone circle to be diverted well to the north. This would be a much cheaper option as no tunnel would be needed. However, it would need the permission of the Ministry of Defence to take the road, which would then become a dual carriage-way, through an army area. "The government has consistly failed to do what it promised to Unesco," said Robert Key, Tory MP for Salisbury. "It is cocking a snook at the World Heritage committee."

Source: The Sunday Times (22 July 2007)

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