Stonehenge tunnel plans quashed…for now

2 August 2021

Plans to build a tunnel near the Neolithic monument of Stonehenge – a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, England – have suffered a setback following a High Court ruling on the project.

The court's decision against the £1.7bn (US$2.36bn) scheme comes after Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) raised a crowdfunded £50,000 challenge in which it claimed the 3.2km tunnel and dual carriageway would be detrimental to the UNESCO site.

SSWHS’s action came after a Development Consent Order (DCO) for the scheme was given in November 2020 by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who claimed the site would suffer “leas than substantial harm” as a result of the project. This was despite warnings at the time from the Planning Inspectorate that the project would cause “permanent, irreversible damage” to the site.

As part of his ruling, the judge, Mr Justice Holgate claimed that the government’s decision was flawed as there was no evidence it had considered the impact of the scheme on the various prehistoric locations and ancient artefacts at the site. Also, that Shapps had not considered alternative schemes as required by World Heritage Convention and common law – including a longer tunnel with both portals located outside the UNESCO site.

Holgate concluded that the Minister did not have legally sufficient material to assess the harm that might be caused and so his decision to grant the DCO was not lawful and went against planning rules.

Highways England (HE) had been a main promoter of the planned tunnel and was hoping to begin work in 2023. It must now wait for the Department for Transport to consider a planned response. A Highways England spokesperson said that the agency still believed the project to be the best solution to the traffic issues along the A303 road past Stonehenge.

Historic England, which manages the historic site said the ruling represented a “missed opportunity to remove the intrusive sight and sound of traffic past the iconic monument and to reunite the remarkable Stonehenge landscape, which has been severed in two by the busy A303 trunk road for decades.”

The Department for Transport was said to be carefully considering its options over how to proceed following the ruling.