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Planned Stonehenge road tunnel moved to protect view of winter solstice

Revised route for A303 upgrade gets mixed reaction from campaign and conservation groups

Mark Moran
12 September 2017
The 1.8 mile-long tunnel is part of the A303 upgrade between Amesbury and Berwick Down
The 1.8 mile-long tunnel is part of the A303 upgrade between Amesbury and Berwick Down


A planned road tunnel running past Stonehenge will be moved to protect views of the historic stone circle, the government has announced. Previously it was planned the upgraded A303 would go south of the stones, but there were concerns this would affect the view of the setting sun during the winter solstice.

The 1.8-mile tunnel will closely follow the existing A303 route, but will be 50 metres further away from the monument than previously planned. The government said this means this will avoid important archaeological sites and avoiding intrusion on the view of the setting sun from Stonehenge during the winter solstice

The Department for Transport said that the tunnel will remove “traffic blight” on local communities. It also claims the tunnel will enhance the landmark by reconnecting the two halves of the 6,500-acre World Heritage Site, which is currently split by the road, and removing the sight and sound of traffic from the Stonehenge landscape.

In the light of criticism of its orignal plan, Highways England undertook further consultation with local communities, heritage groups, archaeologists, historians and engineers. As a result Highways England has modified the plans, including moving the position of one of the entrances to the tunnel to avoid conflicting with the solstice alignment. 

The new proposal has been welcomed by bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic England. However, some conservation and sustainable campaign groups have expressed concerns that the proposed tunnel scheme will cause severe and permanent damage to the archaeological landscape of the World Heritage Site. In June UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) said the proposals were inadequate and the government should consider either lengthening the tunnel or building a surface bypass further south.

Last month the government signalled that it would ignore a call by UNESCO for a rethink on its plans to place the A303 in a tunnel in the vicinity of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Asked if the criticism was likely to prompt a rethink, Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan told Local Transport Today: “I don’t think so, I mean we have the support of the major stakeholders. A lot of people feel that this [our plans] safeguard that monument and make it much better than it is at the moment. When you look at the people who are in favour of us doing something they are the people who live somewhere on that corridor and they know the situation is desperate. When you look at the people who object they are, like UNESCO, from all over the world. The fact that somebody living on the Orkneys has an opinion but it’s somebody else’s problem is something we have to weigh-up in the consultation.”

Announcing the revised route today, O’Sullivan said: “Highways England is committed to delivering a high quality, modern road on this vital route between the south-west and the rest of the country. The A303 and the World Heritage site has suffered from congestion for many years. This scheme will enhance, protect and restore tranquillity to one of the UK’s most iconic landscapes. We have listened to feedback from consultation and believe this preferred route will help improve traffic flow, reduce rat-running on the surrounding roads, bringing improvements to local communities and benefits to the south-west economy.”

The 1.8 mile-long tunnel is part of the A303 upgrade between Amesbury and Berwick Down. Other elements of the scheme are a dual carriageway, a bypass north of Winterbourne Stoke and new junctions with the A345 and A360 either side of the World Heritage site. The government is planning all remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and M5 to dual carriageway standard, starting with three schemes: the one at Stonehenge, one between Sparkford and Ilchester and the third on the A358 between Taunton and Southfields.

Details of the preferred route are available on the scheme webpage.

The government argues that linking the M3 in the south-east and the M5 in the south-west will upgrade this key route and improve journey times for millions of people. It says the investment will support economic growth and tourism in an area where congestion and slow journeys have long had a negative impact on the region’s economy. Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “This government is taking the big decisions for Britain’s future and this major investment in the south-west will provide a huge boost for the region. Quicker journey times, reduced congestion and cleaner air will benefit people locally and unlock growth in the tourism industry. The scheme will also support 120,000 extra jobs and 100,000 new homes across the region, helping us build a country that works for everyone." 

Culture secretary Karen Bradley said: “Stonehenge has captured the imagination of people around the world for centuries and is a site of global importance. With over one million visitors a year it is one of the jewels in the UK’s crown and it is important that we preserve it for generations to come. This investment from the government will help make the visitor experience much more enjoyable and this is good news for local residents and businesses who will benefit from the new route.”

The government said it will also to work with key heritage bodies to ensure this scheme respects and protects the Stonehenge World Heritage site. 

Organisations including the site’s custodians, English Heritage, and the landowner, the National Trust, had been concerned that under plans released earlier this year the western end of the tunnel was too close to the Normanton Down barrow group.

English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic England have now welcomed the changes to the tunnel, issuing a joint statement: “We believe the amended route can, if designed and located with the utmost care, deliver a lasting legacy for the world heritage site and restore peace and tranquillity to the Stonehenge landscape. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reunite this ancient landscape which is currently severed by a huge volume of road traffic.

“The route announced will ensure the winter solstice alignment will be unspoilt by lights and traffic from the road. We also want to see the globally important archaeology protected, the settings of the ancient burial sites respected and the views between those sites restored. It is now critical to ensure that the benefits of this new route can be realised through careful design and mitigation of archaeological risks, particularly at the western portal of the tunnel and the approach road.”

The AA has also welcomed the announcement. “Stonehenge’s ancient circle, created by the can-do attitude of prehistoric builders, has become a monument to modern-age indecision where plans and consultations to ease traffic congestion have gone round and round,” said AA president Edmund King. “This improvement is long overdue, not only for the millions of holidaymakers heading west but also for the essential businesses that use this strategic route. Reducing congestion near Stonehenge will greatly benefit the environment and the economy.” 

However, the Stonehenge Alliance has said proposals take no account of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee’s concerns, meaning that Stonehenge could lose its World Heritage Site (WHS) status. The alliance says the 1.8-mile tunnel would leave some 1.6 miles of four-lane expressway, substantially in cuttings which would impact on the Mesolithic site of Blick Mead, as well as a number of sites of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages for which the WHS designation was given.

The long-term supporter-organisations of the alliance are:

Kate Fielden of CPRE and Rescue, said: “We are shocked at Highways England’s indifference to UNESCO’s advice. The project needs a complete re-think, not a minor tweak that still threatens major harm to this iconic landscape. The potential risk of loss of Stonehenge’s WHS status casts shame upon our country and those responsible for caring for our heritage.”

Chris Todd from Campaign for Better Transport, added: “Progressing with this damaging scheme in the face of the concerns raised by UNESCO is a gravely flawed decision. The scheme either needs to be abandoned altogether, or the whole process rerun with a full range of options which do not result in any harm to the WHS, including non-road building solutions.”


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