CONTROVERSIAL billion-pound plans to transform the roads network around Stonehenge have been approved – with campaigners branding the decision ‘disgraceful’.
A long-running dispute over the scheme – which includes a two-mile tunnel beneath the World Heritage Site – came to an end on Friday (July 14) when the decision was announced.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper (Con, Forest of Dean) gave the proposals, which will revamp and eight-mile stretch of the A303, the green light after a series of consultations and legal challenges.
Initially approved in 2020, the decision was quashed by the High Court after a legal challenge, and had to be redetermined.
A 12-month process has now ended in the approval of a DCO (Development Consent Order), announced by the Government and National Highways.
The decision has been welcomed by National Highways, who said it would ‘help to unlock congestion and transform journeys for millions of people using the A303 between the South East and South West’.
Chief executive of National Highways, Nick Harris, said: “The A303 Stonehenge scheme is part of the biggest investment in our road network for a generation, and I’m really pleased the project has been given the green light by the Secretary of State for Transport – a decision which will enable us to progress this transformational scheme and deliver the planned benefits.
“The decision follows a lot of work on a comprehensive year-long process to reassess our Development Consent Order, looking in detail at possible alternatives, also including cumulative carbon and heritage issues.
“It means we’re now a step closer to solving the longstanding issues of congestion and delays on the existing A303, improving journeys for all our customers and bringing much-need relief to local communities.
“The investment, along with other improvements along the A303, will help to boost the South West economy, improve journey reliability, remove the sight and sound of traffic from this very busy road and return one of our most important World Heritage Sites to something like its original setting.”
The A303 surrounding Stonehenge is a notorious traffic hotspot for residents and those travelling through the area.
National Highways said the plans aim to tackle the issues, with measures including:
* eight miles of free-flowing, high-quality dual carriageway between Amesbury and Berwick Down
* a tunnel at least two miles long underneath the World Heritage Site, closely following the existing A303 route, but a further 50 metres away from the Stonehenge monument, avoiding important archaeological sites, and avoiding intrusion on the view of the setting sun from the stones during the winter solstice
* a new bypass to the north of the village of Winterbourne Stoke
* junctions with the A345 and A360 either side of the World Heritage Site
Derek Parody, National Highways’ project director for the A303 Stonehenge scheme, added: “It is a scheme objective to conserve and enhance the World Heritage Site and this is being achieved through close collaborative working with heritage groups, including English Heritage, National Trust, Historic England and the independent A303 Scientific Committee.
“The scheme will not only sustain the Outstanding Universal Value of the Stonehenge landscape, it will also have a beneficial effect, and extensive archaeological studies and assessments have been undertaken to provide evidence of the benefits that the scheme will deliver for the World Heritage Site.
“The decision represents a major milestone, not only for us as the project team but for all those who have supported this project over a number of years; our stakeholders, the heritage bodies, local and regional businesses and indeed local communities.
“We’re currently analysing the detailed changes within the Development Consent Order and assessing timescales but we anticipate being able to start preparatory work in 2024.”
There is now a six-week period in which parties can lodge an intention to legally challenge the decision.
In the meantime, National Highways said it will be renewing its plans to prepare for the scheme.
Last year, the company awarded the main works contract to the MORE joint venture – comprising FCC Construcción, WeBuild and BeMo Tunnelling – to deliver the £1.25 billion tunnel and main construction.
Costain and Mott MacDonald will be operating as the company’s Delivery Assurance Partner, providing technical and construction management expertise.
The construction phase is set to take five years to complete.
But campaign group The Stonehenge Alliance said it was ‘appalled’ by the decision.
President of the group, Tom Holland, said: “Today, a supposedly Conservative government plans to blow upwards of £2 billion, at a time when the country’s finances are in a shocking state, on a monstrous white elephant of a road development that will permanently disfigure Britain’s most
significant and sacred prehistoric landscape.
“The decision of Mark Harper to greenlight the building of a tunnel through a stretch of the World Heritage Site that surrounds Stonehenge is as inexplicable as it is disgraceful.
“Certainly, no one can be in any doubt that the scheme will inflict permanent, irreversible harm on a landscape that is the supreme icon of British archaeology.”
However, National Highways said ahead of the main work, Wessex Archaeology will carry out archaeological mitigation work.
And Cllr Caroline Thomas, Wiltshire Council’s cabinet member for transport, welcomed the decision.
She said: “We’re delighted that consent has been granted once again for the A303 Stonehenge project and it can now move forward.
“This huge infrastructure project represents a significant investment in Wiltshire that will boost the economy of both our county and the wider region, unlocking jobs and investment.
“Along with the construction, there will also be comprehensive programme of archaeological mitigation, which will enhance our understanding of the World Heritage Site.
“We can now look forward to construction starting and unlocking all the benefits the scheme will bring both to Wiltshire communities and the wider south-west region.”
READ MORE: Legal move to thwart tunnel at Stonehenge
READ MORE: Group seeks legal review of A303 plan at Stonehenge
David Tucker, Federation of Small Businesses transport chair, said the decision meant a boost for business in the region.
“Upgrading the single carriageway sections of the A303 is key to supporting the south-west economy, particularly as the only alternative route via the M4 and M5 into the region is already heavily used,” he said.
“Investment in improving key links on the country’s A roads is a positive and vital way to support our local regional economies.”
Rachael Webb, Wiltshire Team Leader for Natural England, added: “We’ve worked with National Highways to get some really great outcomes for wildlife from the A303 Stonehenge scheme.
“The verges and embankments will make for a flower-rich, six-mile long, butterfly highway and large areas of species-rich chalk grassland will be created.”
A series of public events are set to be announced, giving residents the chance to find out more about the scheme.