The British government has approved the construction of a new, £1.7 billion (~$2.2 billion) tunnel near Stonehenge, the famous prehistoric monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back 5,000 years. Converting the nearby single-lane A303 road — known for traffic jams and motorist accidents — into a two-lane underground tunnel, says Highways England, will improve congestion and clear traffic around the site to make it more appealing.
But critics have expressed concerns over the project, fearing that it could compromise the surrounding archaeology. The advocacy group Stonehenge Alliance, which has campaigned against the tunnel’s construction since 2014, said in a statement yesterday that the decision “will send shock messages around the world.”
“The problem that we see in it in particular is that this is a world heritage site. It is five and a half kilometers across, and the tunnel is only three kilometers long,” said Dr. Kate Fielden of the Stonehenge Alliance in an interview. “So that means that to each side of the tunnel, well within the world heritage site designated for its prehistoric archaeology, there will be massive road cuttings down to the tunnel portals, major interchanges on the boundaries of the world heritage site to each side.”
Though the construction may render the central part of Stonehenge more attractive to visitors, Fielden added, it would “absolutely devastate the landscape to each side, and there’ll be huge loss of archaeological remains.”
The controversial decision goes against the recommendations of the Planning Inspectorate, the UK government agency that deals with land use planning-related issues, which said it could cause “permanent, irreversible harm.” The environmental organization Greenpeace has also opposed the project, calling it “a disaster for England’s heritage and the world’s climate.” A petition to stop the tunnel’s construction has over 160,000 signatures.
Located in the English county of Wiltshire on Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge is considered the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world and a key to understanding Neolithic and Bronze Age culture. Discoveries made in the area this year, including a Late Neolithic pit structure, found two miles north-east of Stonehenge, had delayed a final call on the tunnel project until now.
The decision can still be challenged in Britain’s High Court for the next six weeks. Preparatory work on the tunnel is slated to begin in the spring of next year, and the five-year construction phase is expected to start by 2023.