Stonehenge: Fresh legal challenge launched over tunnel on A303

Campaigners say the project will "permanently and irreversibly desecrate the Stonehenge landscape”.

Campaigners have launched a new legal battle against the Government's decision to approve a controversial road project that includes a tunnel near Stonehenge.

Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) is challenging Transport Secretary Mark Harper’s decision to back the £1.7 billion scheme to overhaul eight miles of the A303, including the two-mile tunnel.

A development consent order previously issued for the National Highways project was quashed by the High Court in July 2021 amid concern about the environmental impact on the Unesco World Heritage Site.

Historian and president of the Stonehenge Alliance Tom Holland said a further legal challenge was necessary to “halt a development that, if allowed to go ahead, will permanently and irreversibly desecrate the Stonehenge landscape”.

Then-transport secretary Grant Shapps gave the green light to the project in November 2020 despite advice from Planning Inspectorate officials it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the area.

However, The Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site alliance successfully challenged his decision in the High Court.

The Department for Transport approved the tunnel from Amesbury to Berwick Down in Wiltshire for the second time on July 14.

Campaigners will now attempt to block the project again.

An illustration of where the tunnel will be built under the World Heritage Site, further away from the Stonehenge monument Credit: National Highways

John Adams, one of the three directors of SSWHS and chair of the Stonehenge Alliance, said: “The Government appears both blind and deaf to concerns about the damage it will perpetrate on this historic and much-loved landscape.

“It has ignored concerns raised by Unesco and seems hell-bent on bulldozing this scheme through before it gets thrown out of Government.

“We believe we have no choice but to launch a second legal challenge in the face of such belligerence.”

Rowan Smith, a Leigh Day solicitor who represents the campaigners, said: “Our client is shocked that the Government appears not to have learnt from its mistakes and has repeated the decision to grant development consent for the Stonehenge road scheme.

“Again, the decision appears to have been made on an unlawful basis. Our client will argue that the failure to reopen the public examination a second time round was unfair and also a breach of human rights.

“We hope the court will grant our client permission for a full hearing.”

The Stonehenge site, together with Avebury, was declared by Unesco to be a World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value in 1986 on account of the size of the megaliths, the sophistication of their concentric plans and the complexes of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and monuments.

The A303 is a congestion hotspot, with drivers heading to and from the South West during peak holiday periods often stuck in long queues on the single-carriageway stretch near the stones.

Highways England says its plan for a two-mile tunnel will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site and cut journey times, but some environmentalists and archaeologists have voiced their opposition to the plan due to its potential impact on the area.

The project is classified as nationally significant, which means a development consent order is needed for it to go ahead.

In a High Court ruling in July 2021, a judge found then-transport secretary Mr Shapps’ decision to approve the project was “unlawful” on two grounds.

Mr Justice Holgate concluded there was a “material error of law” in the decision-making process because there was no evidence of the impact on each individual asset at the historic site.

He also found that Mr Shapps failed to consider alternative schemes, in accordance with the World Heritage Convention and common law.

The Department for Transport was approached for comment but declined.