Stonehenge bypass back on the agenda. Or not.

The Stone Circle at Stonehenge; just one of the c. 700 sites which together form part of the landscape inscribed as a World Heritage Site

The Stone Circle at Stonehenge; just one of the c. 700 sites which together form part of the landscape inscribed as a World Heritage Site

I was dismayed to find the latest copy of the Valley News arrive through my letterbox featuring a front page article entitled Stones bypass back on the agenda. The article comprises the opinion of a single Wiltshire councillor, Cllr. Ian West, regarding what he thinks should be done about the A303 around Stonehenge. Having worked on many of the A303 and Visitor Centre proposals over the years, I find it sad to see such a rehash of old, stale views put forward as news in such a way as this. 

A balanced view. Not.

My first gripe regards the article itself. The bypass idea as put forward by Cllr. West is not new and is certainly not back on the agenda. This is the opinion of one elected representative so from that perspective is indeed worthy of reporting. However, any balanced article should always seek to include a range of views on a given topic and no attempt has been made by Valley News to seek or publish any such alternative views (of which there are many) particularly from any of those organisations who have a responsibility towards the World Heritage Site. Surely a representative of the National Trust, Historic England or English Heritage could have been contacted for comment if only to include a note to say these organisations did not wish to comment on the proposal which, if truth be told, has been well and truly investigated previously in various forms. And dismissed as unviable. It must be appreciated that this bypass proposal is far from novel: surface routes of all kinds have been investigated and dismissed as viable options as I and others have noted previously. Given Cllr. West apparently sits on the Stonehenge WHS Committee, I would have thought he would be intimately familiar with this relevant background.

A303 schemes by Mike Pitts

A303 schemes by Mike Pitts.

Cllr. West states in the Valley News article:

Local people have lived with the A303 problem long enough. The dual carriageway could be built into a landscaped cutting thereby putting the road out of sight of Stonehenge. The road would continue in a cutting under Byway 12 such that the Byway would cross above the A303 along the same line as at present. If built sensitively, high sided vehicles would not be seen and traffic not heard by visitors to the stones.

Over the past 23 years or so that I have represented this area on the council, this scheme has been suggested by many residents to me and I believe it has a great deal of local support and merit. The benefits of this scheme would be:it would be by far the cheapest option  – highly desirable bearing in mind the state of the country’s finances. It would be a fraction of the cost of a tunnel; it would be completed in the shortest time in relation to all other options thereby relieving the traffic congestion sooner; it would retain the open landscape desired by English Heritage with no road in sight from Stonehenge; maintenance of the road would be a fraction of the cost of maintaining a tunnel; in the event of an accident, traffic could still flow, unlike the hazardous situation of accidents in tunnels.

Building the road would involve the least amount of countryside being built over and potentially ruined. It would be built with the least amount of pollution into the atmosphere. Within such a scheme, vehicles could leave the A303 west, park in a designated car park out of sight of Stonehenge, for people to have a chance to glimpse Stonehenge at no charge from a viewing position about 800 metres west of Stonehenge thereby honouring Sir Cecil Chubb’s wish in that he gave the stones to the nation for the nation.

The zombie proposal for a surface route at Stonehenge.

Cllr. West is entitled to his view, of course, and he is duly representing his constituency, for which he should be commended. But his proposal is flawed on various levels. Given he has been involved for over twenty years, he should be aware of the previous voluminous works undertaken and the background to the proposed improvements yet he chooses to ignore or misrepresent various key factors in order to raise this indignus proposal from the dead, a zombie proposal which despite many attempts has apparently refused to be killed off.

The notion that the sole purpose of the improvements project is to remove traffic from view of the stones themselves is incorrect. As is the notion that a massive cutting through the World Heritage Site would “retain the open landscape desired by English Heritage”. Any cutting deep enough to hide high sided vehicles would require a significant land take due to the required grading on the sloping banks, even more so when talking about a cutting housing a dual carriageway. Taking into account the required depth of the cutting, the width of the carriageways, the central reservation, the verges, then the sloping banks, and finally the required drainage atop the berms, any cutting would need to be very wide indeed, unacceptably wide for a scheme within the World Heritage Site as agreed by all involved during previous assessments and inquiries. Cuttings on similar dual carriageways such as the A34 can reach more than 150m wide and to suggest this could be accommodated within the landscape surrounding Stonehenge is ludicrous. This would hardly maintain the open landscape and would instead result in a vast swathe of the landscape being totally destroyed during construction works whilst perpetuating (indeed exacerbating) the current split between the north and south of the World Heritage Site. How on earth one can argue that a surface route in a cutting would involve the least amount of countryside being built over and potentially ruined is nonsensical, especially when compared to a bored tunnel, the option currently preferred.

A34 cutting near Newbury

A34 cutting near Newbury (51°22’24.32″ N 1°21’50.03″ W)

More than just a pile of rocks

Archaeology in the WHS

Archaeology in the WHS; known sites shown in purple.

Which brings me onto the major point. The current tunnel scheme and indeed all proposals examined to date have focused not on the stone circle in isolation (as Cllr. West seems to be doing) but on the World Heritage Site as a whole. As is stated in the UNESCO designation (with my emphasis):

There is an exceptional survival of prehistoric monuments and sites within the World Heritage property including settlements, burial grounds, and large constructions of earth and stone. Today, together with their settings, they form landscapes without parallel. These complexes would have been of major significance to those who created them, as is apparent by the huge investment of time and effort they represent. They provide an insight into the mortuary and ceremonial practices of the period, and are evidence of prehistoric technology, architecture and astronomy. The careful siting of monuments in relation to the landscape helps us to further understand the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

As such, any construction of new dual carriageway within the World Heritage Site is clearly unacceptable due to the negative impact this would have on the landscape. This has been repeated ad nauseum in all the relevant published literature and hammered home at the previous Public Inquiry. Cllr. West must surely be aware of this yet argues that in some way a surface route right through the middle of the World Heritage Site and (even more bizarrely) a new carpark 800m from the stones is not only the best solution but that it fulfills English Heritage objectives and somehow honours the wishes of Sir Cecil Chubb! This is, I am afraid to say, pure fantasy which would result in the World Heritage Site being put on the UNESCO At Risk Register. Whilst it may appeal to his constituents, local support must be balanced against the view that any such development would be in breach of the various international treaties and UK planning legislation to which the government is committed and bound by.

Austerity. Killer of Culture.

To use the argument of cost, as Cllr. West does, is disingenuous although admittedly topical at present. Libraries and museums are being lost as never before in the name of austerity (fourteen of fifteen libraries in Swindon are looking at closure) whilst spurious ‘financial benefit’ arguments are repeatedly being used to justify the destruction of heritage sites under the new National Planning and Policy Framework (NPPF) which removed the previous protections afforded to heritage assets (see here for how the new regime works in practice).

Sadly, the kind of arguments being made by Cllr. West are exactly the kind of arguments that could be used under NPPF to justify the kind of wanton destruction that would be associated with a new dual carriageway surface route through the World Heritage Site.

Stonehenge is one of the great wonders of the world and to suggest that some cheapo solution is acceptable due to the “state of the country’s finances” is distasteful to say the least. If a solution befitting this World Heritage Site, one of the premier heritage sites in the UK indeed the world, cannot be adequately funded, what does this say for the UK’s attitude towards heritage and what precedent does this set for the countless other (legally protected) heritage sites at risk from damage or destruction under the guise of austerity and/or the need for economic growth at the cost of all else?

From a heritage perspective, better to do nothing than damage this irreplaceable landscape for the sake of saving a few bob.

Options, options, options…

That is not to say that the current tunnel scheme is universally supported. It is already the case that the short tunnel option will result in significant damage to the World Heritage Site and recent discoveries from sites such as Blick Mead suggest there is still much of international importance to be discovered within the landscape, discoveries that would be put at risk by unwarranted interventions in the name of easing traffic congestion bounded by artificial financial constraints without proper due consideration for heritage concerns.

A long bored tunnel, as previously supported by English Heritage and the National Trust, is really the only solution within the World Heritage Site that would completely satisfy UK obligations towards the World Heritage Site and also meet the needs of Highways England. Given recent discussions regarding the viability of an 18km Trans-Pennine tunel, even the longest tunnel option previously evaluated for Stonehenge is surely a drop in the ocean in comparison?

Regarding surface routes, there are potentially suitable solutions, as has previously been noted by Andy Rhind-Tutt (and reported in the Valley News). Many of these have also been evaluated previously (see map above) and it is somewhat ironic that the very same Cllr West describes Rhind-Tutt as living in “cloud cuckoo land” prior to making this latest baseless proposal; indeed, this latest proposal for a surface route by Cllr. West is somewhat at odds with his previous statement on the subject:

I have been involved for many years and the tunnel is on the table. To do anything else would take a long time. Although I’m not 100 per cent tunnel it gives my residents what they want.

I guess politicians are entitled to ignore published evidence and expert advice and u-turn at will, as exemplified by various members of the current government.

Conclusion

So, in short, a less than desirable bit of reporting on a totally unacceptable view espoused by a single individual who has seemingly chosen to try to make political capital at the expense of our shared global heritage. I look forward to the follow up article in the Valley News which provides more rounded coverage and facilitates a proper debate on the outstanding issues as any exemplary bit of journalism should.