Stonehenge Tunnel Scheme: Consultation now open

Stonehenge and the A303

Stonehenge and the A303

Plans for the upgrading of the A303, including a tunnel past Stonehenge, have now been published with a fanfare and there is a consultation phase open until 5th March.

As with all such consultations, there is a lot of information to digest, but there are a couple of key points to note regarding the scheme. The main point can be gleaned by reading between the lines of the statement made by Chris Grayling (Secretary of State for Transport):

Drivers, hauliers, residents and other road users are being invited to have their say on the proposal to upgrade a seven-mile single carriageway stretch of the A303 near Stonehenge in Wiltshire into a dual carriageway.

What about other interested parties (of which there are many)? It is plain to see that this scheme is not intended to involve them. This is a transport scheme. There is little mention of heritage in the statement other than to say the scheme runs past the “historic Stonehenge site“. Whilst the consultation documents have necessarily looked at the heritage implications, it would appear that these are very firmly an adjunct to the prime motivation (transport) and prime driver for the approach taken to the assessment of options (ie cost). Let’s be clear about this: whilst there is a veneer of positivity towards heritage applied to the scheme and some big claims being made regarding benefits, the needs of the World Heritage Site have been very much put second to the perceived needs of the transport system and costs of any scheme.

I won’t go into the details of the consultation documents, although they do make for interesting reading. Various colleagues are poring over them presently and reporting on the details. And of course, campaign groups such as the Stonehenge Alliance are being very vocal.

I shall instead focus on the process that led us here.

Heritage…?

Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust initially took the position that ICOMOS “recognises the benefits a tunnel of at least 2.9km could bring to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, if it is designed and delivered well“. In short, they are supporting the scheme although their latest statement in light of the ongoing consultation gives them a bit more wriggle room (my emphases):

Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust welcome Highways England’s public consultation on initial options to improve the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down, and the inclusion of a tunnel scheme of at least 2.9km to remove much of the A303 road from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

We are looking at the detail of the consultation document and potential tunnel scheme, and will be providing our responses in due course. We encourage others to take part in the public consultation and have their say.

If it is designed well, Historic England, the National Trust and English Heritage all firmly believe that a tunnel of the right length and location will deliver a scheme worthy of this world-famous place. The current A303 with its busy traffic ruins the setting of many prehistoric monuments and stops people from exploring a large part of the World Heritage Site.

A tunnel would reunite the Stonehenge landscape and bring huge benefits, improving our understanding and enjoyment of the Stonehenge monument and the surrounding countryside.

Looking at the ICOMOS report in detail, and taking the fact that the however, there are some interesting points made:

…it is strongly recommended that new detailed evaluation studies be undertaken to better grasp and carefully consider the issues surrounding the placement and design of the eastern portal of the tunnel scheme as proposed in Snashall & Young. (p13)

It was Nick Snashall and Chris Young’s 2014 report which first put forward the option of a 2.9km tunnel. But the ICOMOS mission raised serious concerns over the placement of both portals.

However, the siting and design of the tunnel portals, approach cuttings/embankments, entry/exit ramps, mitigation measures and the temporary construction works have the potential to adversely impact OUV. (p24)

The longer 4.5km tunnel was still an option at this point and ICOMOS expressed a desire for the eastern portal to be located further east as was the case in the 4.5km scheme.

Depending on how tunnel proposals develop in relation to HIAs and options selection, this position may need to be rethought and reconsidered, with further deliberation given not only to the current state of visibility of the Avenue at this point, but also to the wider emphasis on the Stonehenge “cultural landscape” (see below), the proposed links between the Durrington Walls settlement and Stonehenge monument via the Avon river and the Avenue, and more generally the apparent benefits to OUV, including the integrity of the World Heritage site as a whole, by placing the tunnel portal further east. (p13)

The western portal similarly raised concerns.

However, the 1 km long approach road and the cuttings/embankments and entry/exit ramps to the west of the portal within the property have the potential to adversely impact on some attributes of OUV in terms of integrity of the overall Stonehenge cultural landscape and the visual links between monuments. This will need to be considered as proposals and HIAs are developed for option selection (as set out below) (p12)

Importantly, the ICOMOS report was very clear as to the priorities for siting the portals and the need for heritage to be a key driver and any decision not left solely to the needs of transport.

The decision of where to site the portals must be a collaborative one, rather than being the sole responsibility of Highways England. The length of the tunnel and the siting of the portals are the two key issues of this project. (p15)

This was made even more explicit:

It is highly recommended to avoid a situation where heritage decisions are taken (or appear to be taken) with commercial or operational considerations foremost in mind. (p15)

Other heritage bodies have similarly expressed concerns on these matter. The Council for British Archaeology statement was clear:

Trustees recognised that the latest proposals are an improvement on previous options (eg. the 2.1k tunnel examined a public inquiry in 2004), but still have considerable concerns about the impact of the tunnel portal locations and the new surface dual carriageways on the archaeological landscape and the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site, particularly at the western end.

Subject to information to be made available in the coming weeks, from ICOMOS and others, the CBA is likely to express a clear preference for a longer tunnel, extended on the western side, moving the portal further away from key prehistoric barrow groups in the vicinity. The implications of the proposals for the eastern side of the World Heritage Site also need further detailed examination.

If we look at a comparison, the A3 Hindhead Tunnel, it is clear to see how the construction impact is significant for a portal.

A3 Hindhead Tunnel portal by Tom O'Donoghue

A3 Hindhead Tunnel portal by Tom O’Donoghue

Equally, looking at the operational state of the same portal, the amount of lighting present is obvious. If this were to be placed on the solsticial alignment, the visual impact would be significant.

Hindhead Tunnel by Highways England

Hindhead Tunnel by Highways England

Other views

In addition to formal statements from heritage bodies, there have been some interesting comments from archaeologists.

Dan Hicks suggested that the A303 is now part of the setting of the monument and he does have a point in that the clearing of the heritage of some periods in favour of others is all too often problematic. Heritage is imbued with meaning, most of which pertains to groups in the present who take an interest rather than being some inherent, inaliable characteristic of old stuff. I would suggest that talking about the A303 as heritage in this scenario is stretching the notion a bit. Although I would have loved to explore the aerodrome had it survived. Given what we now have, however, I for one would very much like to see the road removed, the bisected landscape reunited and opened up as unrestricted chalk downland where people can explore the wealth of sites and monuments to their heart’s content, appreciating of course that it’s not a ‘prehistoric landscape’ but a modern landscape with a complex history.

Sarah May makes some very interesting points about how we value heritage and why, including an excellent background summary of events to date. Like Sarah, I have worked on countless iterations of projects falling under the banner of Stonehenge improvements; this ancient pile of rocks has been a constant in my archaeological career for the whole of the 21st century. But I would suggest that however we come to value this special place, and there are a plethora of contested, contradictory and alternative meanings, perceptions and understandings out there, we do indeed value this landscape. It’s status as a World Heritage Site in particular adds a dimension not found elsewhere and puts it into the league of ‘super sites’, adding a layer of tourist generated income and bucket list destination hyperbole into the mix. Such a site deserves proper attention and an appropriate solution.

Tim Daw has pointed out the obvious potential impact on the astronomical alignments which the planners seem to have missed. Quite how, I don’t know as previous assessments (such as the award winning Stonehenge Environmental Improvements project) were given clear briefs to include astronomical alignments in any assessments. Given the same lead consultants are on this latest project, and they have a very good track record, it seems unlikely this was an oversight. More on this below.

Mike Pitts takes a pragmatic and positive view. He is indeed right that the 2.9km option is the best option assessed so far. But only as more suitable options have been ignored. Which leads me to my conclusions.

Conclusions

Despite the positive spin, it is undoubtedly true that the 2.9km tunnel will adversely impact the WHS. This seems to be acknowledged in statements made in regard to the consultation. Yes, it is the best option put on the table to date and there have been many as I have discussed previously. But that doesn’t make it suitable or appropriate.

I would argue there are two key inter-related issues. Firstly, the needs of heritage are not being put first, as ICOMOS requested. This has led to the second which is that the siting of the portals in the current schemes being consulted on are plainly unsuitable, a necessity of the fixation on a particular length.

The proposals prime focus is money and the needs of transport. Options for longer 4.5km tunnels were not even assessed as they were thrown out for being too costly (A303 Stonehenge Amesbury to Berwick Down Technical Appraisal Report Volume 1. p6.). These longer tunnels would have met all requirements, no objections needed. And as Rachel Pope points out, longer, more expensive tunnels are being built for HS2.

This has then led to the option of a 2.9km tunnel, derived from earlier work, gaining a life of it’s own. It is primarily affordable and provides a transport solution. The designers are then hamstrung: how to fit a scheme of a fixed (too short) length into a space where the eastern and western ends have major constraints. Move the 2.9km scheme further west and the eastern portal impacts the Avenue and King Barrows Ridge. Move the scheme east and the western portal is well within the WHS, having physical impacts on too many monuments.

So here we are. The consultation is fundamentally flawed as the parameters are wrong. Contrary to the conclusions of the ICOMOS report, it is financial and commercial interests driving this scheme. One redeeming element is that there are currently even more field evaluations ongoing and these will be undertaken to the highest standards by professional archaeologists, supported by the excellent curatorial teams at Wiltshire Council and Historic England. These offer an unrivaled opportunity to find out more about the landscape and will be used to inform the coming detailed design stages.

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Hopefully, the consultation will have sufficient impact so it is clear that this scheme should be primarily a heritage project which involves some road building rather than a transport project with some heritage implications. A change of emphasis which should lead to a revised set of realistic options to meet all requirements.

I watch with bated breath.


Bibliography:

Snashall, N & Young, C. 2014. Preliminary Outline Assessment of the impact of A303 improvements on the Outstanding Universal Value of the Stonehenge Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage property