| 7 February 2004
The future of Stonehenge
A public inquiry into plans for a dual carriageway under Stonehenge will stoke the fierce debate on how best to protect the site. The current scheme sees a dual carriageway upgrade to the A303 and, in deference to Stonehenge's special status, part of the new road should be routed underground.
This £200m solution to Stonehenge's problems is supported by the prime minister and the English Heritage, which launched its "masterplan" in 1998. It includes provision for a new state-of-the-art visitor centre near the town of Amesbury and is being presented as a bold and imaginative solution. But not everyone agrees. Among those opposed is the National Trust, which owns much of the land surrounding Stonehenge, and the Council for British Archaeology. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), the official body charged with the protection of world heritage sites, has stated that the new road would "severely diminish" Stonehenge's value. This simmering dispute will come to a head on February 17 with the start of a public inquiry into the Highways Agency's plans. Should the plans be approved, work could start as early 2005 and be completed by 2008.
The Highways Agency argues that the proposed 2.1km tunnel is designed so that, for anyone standing next to the stone circle, the new, upgraded A303 would be invisible. A second road, the A344, which comes within 50 yards of the main circle, will be removed and grassed over, as will the notorious 1960s concrete visitor centre and car park. For years, an argument also raged about the tunnelling method, with the Highways Agency refusing to contemplate a bored tunnel on cost grounds, while archaeologists abhorred the alternative of a cut-and-cover tunnel. A bored tunnel has now been accepted as being preferable.
Opponents of the scheme point out that the new dual carriageway would still be above ground for two-thirds of the width of the world heritage site. "The monument is the centre of a series of inter-linked ceremonial sites and spaces that make it the most complex prehistoric landscape site in Europe. We believe, therefore, that we need to evaluate the impact of the road proposals on the entire site," says Chris Jones, project director at the Highways Agency. In fact, the planned dual carriageway would slice through the middle of this landscape, with one of the proposed tunnel portals within a few metres of an archaeologically-important Neolithic barrow. It would also cut across the Avenue, the ancient ceremonial approach road from the River Avon in the south.
All this could have been avoided under the original plan for a 4.5km long-bore tunnel, which would cost around an extra £200m, built under the entire world heritage site - agreed in principle by English Heritage, the Highways Agency and the National Trust in 1995. But that was vetoed as being too expensive, and the present plan for a cheaper, shorter tunnel was concocted - with the blessing of English Heritage. "No one can understand why English Heritage has changed its mind," says Kate Fielden, secretary of the Save Stonehenge Alliance.
George Lambrick, director of the Council for British Archaeology, believes that the Highways Agency, English Heritage and the government should be taking a much longer-term view. He says: "If you look at the long term, the parts of the road that are outside the tunnel will preclude a whole lot of options for the improvement of the site way into the future. We feel that this is one of those cases where we have to plan for many generations ahead - not just the immediate requirements for road traffic relief."
Source: The Guardian (4 February 2004)
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