21 February 2004
Stonehenge public inquiry underway
The inquiry into the controversial plans for Stonehenge (England), announced in September 2003 and reported in Archaeo News (21 September 2003), opened on 17 February 2004. Some 200 people packed Salisbury’s Guildhall on the first day of the inquiry, which is expected to last until the end of April. The primary focus of the inquiry is the proposal for a 1.3 mile bored tunnel to take the A303 beneath the site. Representatives from the engineering firm Halcrow Group have said that the single-carriageway stretches of the A303 were operating close to capacity, fell short of highway standards, and that traffic in the Stonehenge area had increased well above the national average for rural trunk roads. The road scheme includes the closure and grassing of the A344. Reported estimates of the cost of the scheme range from £183m to £193m. The proposals would take three and a half years to complete, with an earliest possible starting date of spring 2005.
Battle lines have already been drawn. The Highways Agency and English Heritage (responsible for management of the site and sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) support the scheme, but a large number of other bodies and local campaigners have voiced opposition. Evidence against the scheme will be presented by, among others, the Prehistoric Society, the Council for British Archaeology, the Stonehenge Alliance and the British Druid Order. Most objections are leveled at the proposed length of the tunnel.
English Heritage says that the removal of the roads would be the ‘crowning achievement of the Stonehenge project, enabling people to enjoy its landscape safely and at peace’. Highways Agency project manager Chris Jones described the scheme as a unique and exceptional environmental scheme which is crucial to the Stonehenge project. The project includes replacing the existing visitor centre with a new £57 million complex two miles away and returning farmland in the Stonehenge core zone to traditional chalk downland. “Without the scheme the Stonehenge project would fail. Stonehenge would continue to be despoiled and the Government could not fulfil its obligations under the World Heritage Convention,” says Jones.
But a week before the inquiry opened members of Salisbury District Council’s Northern Area Committee voted against the plans, denouncing them as ‘totally unacceptable’. And the Chairman of the Council to Protect Rural England, Wiltshire, has said that: “The scale and impact of the proposals would seriously damage the visual character of the area and substantially worsen the division of the World Heritage Site.” CPRE’s head of transport policy Paul Hamblin agrees that a tunnel is needed. But he adds that new roads should be of the highest environmental quality: “The Government needs to dig deep to find what it takes to deliver a longer tunnel for this priceless world asset.”
The National Trust, who own the site, are concerned that the plans will place tunnel exits on archaeologically sensitive ridgelines. National Trust spokesman Martyn Heighton says: “This public inquiry needs to consider whether the proposed tunnel is long enough to conserve and enhance the spirit of place, landscape and archaeological interest of Stonehenge.” The Trust will argue that a Bronze Age earthwork and the ceremonial approach to the stones would remain severed by the A303 and that further areas will be plagued by traffic.
Icomos, an international body representing conservation experts, has released a statement saying that: “Short-term priorities such as easing traffic congestion are given undue influence in the plans. A long-term view should be taken and a longer tunnel considered. The shorter tunnel fails to deliver substantial-enough cultural and social benefits.”
Campaigners argue that the tunnel should be lengthened to at least 2.5 miles in order to bypass the ritual landscape, even though the estimated costs would spiral to around £350 million. Friends of the Earth go further, and want the tunnel doubled to 2.8 miles. Mike Birkin, South West Regional Campaigns Co-ordinator, echoes Icomos, saying: “It would be a monstrous dereliction of duty to future generations to inflict massive damage on this World Heritage Site for the sake of short term relief of congestion.”
The evidence is being heard by independent planning inspector Michael Ellison. The inquiry’s remit extends only so far as to record and make recommendations to the Minister of Transport, Alistair Darling, and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who will make the final decision. Chris Woodford, spokesman for local compaign group Save Stonehenge, fears that: “Even if the inspector says this is the most abhorrent scheme and it should be abandoned, the Government will be able to turn around and say ‘We’ll build it anyway’.”
(Editor’s note: Transcripts of the daily proceedings of the Stonehenge public inquiry can be found at the following URL: www.planning-inspectorate.gov.uk/stonehenge/transcript.htm)
Sources: BBC News, Ananova, Country Life, Leisure Opportunities, Timesonline, Western Daily Press, Daily Telegraph, The Independent (17-21 February 2004)