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19 July 2008
Stonehenge centre ready for 2012 Olympics?

Ambitious plans for a world-class visitor centre for Stonehenge may have dwindled to a world-class prefab, but both English Heritage and the government pledged it would be built in time for the 2012 Olympics.
     After over 20 years of bitter public debate, the proposed £57m visitor centre collapsed last year when the government abandoned, on cost grounds, the plan to tunnel the A303 where it passes one of the world's most famous prehistoric monuments. Ordered by culture minister Margaret Hodge to sort the site in time for the expected Olympics tourism bonanza, English Heritage launched yet another public consultation, this time on a new quick fix solution: a 'temporary' building lasting up to 20 years, costing up to £20m, and providing a café, a shop and twice as much parking.
     It could be achieved either by drastically upgrading the present site - damned almost 20 years ago by a parliamentary committee as 'a national disgrace' - or on one of four other sites scattered across the edge of the world heritage site. In most options there would be park and ride schemes leaving visitors to walk the remaining 1.25km to the stones, across a landscape spattered with other monuments completely overlooked by most visitors today. In every case the A344 branch road, which passes within yards of the stones, would be closed and turfed over.
     "We have to do this - there is no alternative," said Lord Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of English Heritage. The consultation closes in October, the results go to the government by the end of the year, and English Heritage will then invite design tenders. They hope to win planning permission next summer, start building in 2010, and finish well before the first starting pistol of the London Olympics. Between them the people who attended launch in Amesbury have fought every single previous proposal.
     For the first time there was cautious consensus that now it could just work. "You may not get a perfect solution," Hodge said, "but you will get something which works a million times better than what we've got at present." Archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, now an English Heritage commissioner, who has been working at Stonehenge since 1974, said: "This time I really feel success is within our grasp." Kate Fielden, also an archaeologist and local representative of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "What we need now is to do something gentle, which will allow us to do more and better later."

Source: The Guardian (16 July 2008)

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