Planning permission for the tunnel to bypass the Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire has been overturned in the High Court, New Civil Engineer reports. Transport secretary Grant Shapps had given permission for the scheme last November, against the recommendations of planning officials who said the tunnel would damage the heritage site.

A legal challenge to the planning approval was brought by the Campaign group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS), and on Friday 30 July, the approval was ruled unlawful by Mr Justice Holgate. He said that Shapps had ‘acted irrationally and unlawfully’, according to a report in The Guardian.

The £1.7bn Highways England (HE) scheme was set to build an eight-mile stretch of dual carriageway on the A303 in Wiltshire, including a two-mile tunnel under the Stonehenge world heritage site, in order to ease traffic flow problems which have become worse in recent years. 

HE appointed archaeological specialists to carry out excavations and record and preserve any artefacts ahead of the start of construction work. The agency has said that any important archaeological sites will be avoided, and the road scheme would be ‘sensitive and transformational’.

However, the planning inspector’s report recommended that consent for the scheme should be withheld, raising concerns about substantial harm to the cultural heritage, landscape, and the visual impact around the site. Despite this, Shapps approved the application for the A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down works on 12 November 2020.

The High Court decided that Shapps had not properly considered alternative schemes, which the law required him to do. It also ruled that the decision-making process included no evidence of the impact on each individual asset of the historic site. Holgate said there was a ‘material error of law.’

He said: “In this case the relative merits of the alternative tunnel options compared to the western cutting and portals were an obviously material consideration which the (transport secretary) was required to assess. It was irrational not to do so. This was not merely a relevant consideration which [Shapps] could choose whether or not to take into account.”

Campaigners from SSWHS, as well as various other groups, including archaeologists, environmental groups, and druids, welcomed Justice Holgate’s decision. 

A spokesperson for SSWHS said: “We could not be more pleased about the outcome of the legal challenge. The Stonehenge Alliance has campaigned from the start for a longer tunnel if a tunnel should be considered necessary.”

“Ideally, such a tunnel would begin and end outside the world heritage site. But now that we are facing a climate emergency, it is all the more important that this ruling should be a wake-up call for the government.”

However, not all groups were pleased by the decision, with Historic England describing it as a missed opportunity to remove the intrusive and noisy A303 traffic past the iconic monument. They claim that a tunnel is the best solution to reunite the Stonehenge landscape, which is currently split by the trunk road.

Highways England also expressed their disappointment with the ruling. In a statement, they described the ruling as a setback, and that they still remained confident that the scheme was the best solution to the continuing traffic problems at the site.

The Guardian reports that the government-owned HE are continuing with their plans, and have said they will continue with the procurement process to ensure it runs to schedule. The Department for Transport still has the option of appealing against the ruling.

Preliminary works were originally due to start this summer, but they have been postponed. However, HE are continuing to appoint contractors for the main works phase of the scheme, with a £60m management contract expected to be awarded later this year.

Stonehenge is a UNESCO world heritage site, which awards special status to the world’s most remarkable landscapes. However, recently, Dr Mechtild Rössler, a world-renowned expert in cultural heritage and the history of planning, and director of UNESCO’s world heritage centre, urged the government to do more to conserve the UK’s heritage.

If the government wins an appeal against the High Court ruling and the tunnel scheme does go ahead, Stonehenge is expected to be placed on UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ list, which could lead to the world famous site being stripped of its special status.

This fate recently occurred in Liverpool, which became only the third place in 50 years to lose its UNESCO title. Judges decided that the historic waterfront had become so overdeveloped that it had lost much of its original character. UNESCO have urged the government to discuss any future plans for the Stonehenge site with them.

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