Stonehenge at risk of being 'de-listed' as world heritage site if A303 tunnel goes ahead

Campaigners are challenging plans to overhaul eight miles of the A303. Credit: PA

Stonehenge is at risk of being “de-listed” as a Unesco world heritage site if plans for a controversial road project go ahead, campaigners say.

It comes as they make a second High Court bid to try and block the plans.

They claim the government was “irrational to give no weight” to the UN agency warning that approval of the £1.7 billion scheme warranted its inclusion on the “list of world heritage in danger.”

Lawyers for Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) said building the tunnel would mark “the first step being taken towards de-listing” and would be “the direct result” of the government’s decision.

Campaigners are making a second High Court bid to try and stop the scheme. Credit: PA

SSWHS is challenging Transport Secretary Mark Harper’s backing of plans to overhaul eight miles of the A303.

Representing SSWHS at a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, David Wolfe KC said campaigners had set out the effects of the site being de-listed by Unesco, arguing that its value "must be considered to this and future generations.”

Mr Wolfe said the approved scheme would “destroy” around seven hectares of the world heritage site, a change that would be “permanent and irreversible”.

He added the Government’s approach did not provide for “any expert interrogation of the evidence,” with the redetermination of the project “run entirely by officials.”

The barrister said the deciding minister “failed to conscientiously consider” or did not know about arguments over “a broad range of issues,” such as the landscape and visual impacts of plans or a “non-expressway alternative.”

He added that the Government had acted unlawfully by not considering its carbon budget delivery plan and net zero delivery plan in its decision, with this being a “fatal omission.”

National Highways said the tunnel will reduce traffic and cut journey times. Credit: National Highways

James Strachan KC, for the Department for Transport (DfT), said in written arguments there was “no inadequacy” in a ministerial briefing over the “hypothetical” risk of world heritage site de-listing.“

"The world heritage site has not been delisted, nor is it said that it will be de-listed if the scheme proceeds,” he said.

He said the minister had “all appropriate expertise available to make his decision”, which was “fully compliant” with legal requirements and “objectively fair”.

He added that the minister had “more than sufficient material to reach the overall conclusion that the heritage benefits of the alternatives were not sufficient to outweigh the cost, delay and other harms of implementing them”.

The Government “clearly did take into account” its net zero strategy, Mr Strachan said.

The project first received government approval in 2020, before being quashed by the High Court in July 2021 amid concern about the environmental impact on the site.

The tunnel from Amesbury to Berwick Down, in Wiltshire was approved by the Department for Transport (DfT) for the second time earlier this year.

The Government argued that the need for the scheme and its benefits “outweighed the harms,” including the “less than substantial harm to heritage assets.”

National Highways said its plan for the tunnel will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site and cut journey times.

The Stonehenge archaeological site, 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.

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

The hearing before Mr Justice Holgate is due to conclude on Thursday, with a ruling expected at a later date.