23 July 2005
Plans for Stonehenge put on hold
The British Government has announced that the plans to rebuild the traffic and environment around Stonehenge - which included an ambitious and controversial tunnel under the site - are to be shelved, as rising cost estimates for the project cast doubt on its validity. Following work carried out by the Highways Agency, the estimates for the project rose from £284m to £470m, due apparently to soft weak chalk in the soil and a high water table.
The inspector's report from the public inquiry on the Stonehenge proposal - which the government has been sitting on for almost a year - unequivocally supported burying the road in a 1.3 mile (2.1km) tunnel. However, in announcing his conclusions, Dr Stephen Ladyman, Roads minister, said: "Our recognition of the importance of Stonehenge as a World Heritage Site remains unchanged but given the scale of the cost increase we have to re-examine whether the scheme still represents value for money and if it remains the best option for delivering the desired improvements." The Government is now set to carry out a detailed review of all the options to find what will be best for the site, it says.
However the National Trust, which is keen to see the situation resolved, called on Government to use this review of the site to explore 'creative solutions' that safeguard the central objective of reuniting the ancient stones with the surrounding landscape of the World Heritage Site. The Trust also expressed concern that the review of options should not in any way diminish the quality of the long-awaited project, or delay it substantially.
English Heritage, on the other hand, continues to believe the present scheme is the most effective in terms of the structure of the site, and cost effectiveness: "We continue to believe that the proposed road scheme represents the best value for money for achieving all the desired improvements while offering protection to the underlying archaeology." said their statement.
The Council for British Archaeology (CBA) hopes the Government will reconsider the whole scheme. "We were strongly opposed to the planned tunnel," said Mike Heyworth, Director of the CBA. "Now it sounds as if they’re going to kick it into the long grass." The CBA confirmed that it remains resolutely opposed to the proposals for a short tunnel, which removes the A303 from the immediate vicinity of the stones but only at the cost of major damage to the rest of the World Heritage Site.
Chris Woodford of the Save Stonehenge group, said: "This was always a quick and dirty motorway scheme pretending to be an archaeological improvement." Friends of the Earth, which opposed turning the A303 into a virtual motorway, opposed the tunnel because it was not long enough. Now they fear a cheaper solution might make matters worse. FoE's Mike Birkin said: "We are deeply worried that the Government may come forward with a cheaper and more damaging proposal instead. They should also cancel the plans to turn the A303 into a second strategic route into the West."
Also the new, Australian-designed visitor centre is dependent on resolving the roads issue. It would replace squalid facilities damned 12 years ago by the parliamentary public accounts committee as "a national disgrace". Mike Pitts, an archaeologist who has excavated at Stonehenge, and written about the site, said: "This is terrible news. In the wake of winning the London bid for the Olympics, it hardly encourages belief in the government's support for grand projects."
Now the Government is to go back to the drawing board with Stonehenge's managers English Heritage, and with the National Trust, which ownsmuch of the land around the area, after seven years of working on the massive project.
Sources: Department of Transport, BBC News (20 July 2005), 24 Hour Museum, Country Life, The Guardian, The Times, Western Daily Press (21 July 2005), Western Daily Press (22 July 2005)