The 1.8-mile (2.9km) tunnel to be dug at the A303 is part of a £2bn plan to make the route – from London to the South West – a dual carriageway. It is hoped the tunnel will help tackle what English Heritage calls a “highly detrimental” traffic bottleneck at Stonehenge, which often sees motorists queue for hours.
But although the plan has been welcomed by English Heritage and the National Trust, which are guardians of Stonehenge and its World Heritage Site (WHS), the 2.9km tunnel is opposed by the Stonehenge Alliance.
The group, which has long campaigned against short tunnels at Stonehenge, fears it would “not only destroy archaeological remains but also create huge, modern monumental engineering works affecting the landscape of the World Heritage Site”.
Launching its ‘Save Stonhenge’ petition, addressed to Patrick McLoughlin MP, secretary of state for transport, the group argued instead for a longer tunnel: “The World Heritage Site measures roughly 5.4km across and is at present traversed by the A303 in single carriageway, except for some 1.8km of dual carriageway into the WHS from the edge of its eastern boundary.
“Ideally we would prefer a tunnel of some 6km in length – so as to protect the whole WHS and restore that part already damaged by A303 dualling. As a compromise, we are arguing for a tunnel of at least 4.5km, which would begin within the cutting created for the existing dual carriageway on the eastern side of the WHS, and end west of the western WHS boundary.
“Under the current plans all archaeology in the construction zones would be destroyed and the A303 would become the largest ever human intervention in an area fashioned and revered by over a hundred generations of our ancestors. The whole Stonehenge landscape has an outstanding universal value that is of immense significance for all people for all time, and this transcends any consideration of sorting out a 21st-century part-time traffic jam.”
Concerns over the plans have also been raised by a group that advises World Heritage body Unesco. In a letter sent to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the UK branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) warned that a tunnel could have an “adverse impact” on the Stonehenge landscape.
The body told History Extra: “ICOMOS-UK appreciates the very real need to address the issue of the A303 at Stonehenge and welcomes the Government’s announcement to do just that. We recognise that a tunnel could help to preserve the Outstanding Universal Value of this important World Heritage Site.
“However, we are concerned that associated portals and dual carriageways could have a significant and adverse impact on archaeology across the wider World Heritage landscape, and believe that any such threat should be very carefully considered as part of a full impact assessment of the proposed project, taking account of the United Kingdom’s obligations under the 1972 World Heritage Convention”.
The plan, which was announced on Monday ahead of Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, has been welcomed by English Heritage and the National Trust.
Helen Ghosh, director general of the National Trust, said: “The importance of this announcement today cannot be overstated. After many false starts and challenges [a previous plan to build a tunnel past Stonehenge was dropped seven years ago because of the cost], this does for the first time feel like a real opportunity to tackle the blight of the road that dominates the landscape of Stonehenge.
“If designed well, putting the A303 into a tunnel of 2.9km will bring the Stonehenge landscape together once more, creating space for nature and improving the site’s tranquility. I know there will be some sadness that people will no longer be able to see the stones from the road, but visitors will once again be able to hear the sounds of skylarks singing rather than the constant noise of traffic.
Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said: “We have been campaigning for a tunnel to remove the blight that is the A303, for the past 30 years. This news is the icing on the cake and vindicates all our hard work.
“This is about investing in the future. We have a responsibility to future generations to get this right as we provide a world class solution for a world class place.”