Stonehenge tunnel relaunched despite protests

The British High Court on Monday, February 19, rejected the appeal filed by the Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) association in August 2023, which challenges the construction of a three-kilometer road tunnel near the prehistoric site of Stonehenge.

Opponents of the project – druids, heritage defenders and environmental activists – are not their first legal action. They had already filed a successful action in 2021, which led to the cancellation of the project by the High Court. In July 2023, Transport Minister Mark Harper re-approved this same project, slightly revised and valued at 1.7 billion pounds sterling (around 2 billion euros).

The new appeal was then filed by the SSWHS association, which also took part in the launch of a petition against the project, signed by more than 200,000 people and submitted to Unesco in September 2023. During the first of three days of he hearing, which took place in December 2023, around fifty demonstrators even gathered in front of the High Court with banners and shamanic drums, counting among them followers of Druidism who celebrate the solstices and equinoxes at Stonehenge.

Map showing the excavations discovered around the Stonehenge site, which form a circle more than two kilometers in diameter.

© University of St Andrews

Justice David Holgate, however, ruled in favor of the government, which argued that the benefits of the project “outweighed the disadvantages”including on “insignificant damage caused to heritage property”. The current A303 road, which runs alongside the Stonehenge site, would thus be less congested since it is planned to divert a large section into a new two-lane tunnel 40 meters deep, which would pass 200 meters from the prehistoric megaliths . Government agency National Highways, in charge of the project, says the three-kilometre tunnel would ease traffic flow by reducing travel times and congestion, while removing the sight and sound of traffic from the site. During the hearing, the lawyer for the Ministry of Transport also assured that the project was “compliant with UK obligations” towards the World Heritage Convention, which commits it to protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986.

For heritage defenders, the consequences of such a project would however be disastrous. According to them, the long and deep trenches dug at each end of the tunnel would destroy archaeological remains. During the hearing, the SSWHS association questioned the merits of such an operation, asserting that it is based on a “erroneous analysis of probable A303 traffic figures” and not “does not recognize the damage caused to heritage”. She also argues that Transport Minister Mark Harper would not have considered other “non-highway options”, such as building a railway instead of a tunnel. He would have acted like this “irrationally”taking into account neither the risk of Stonehenge being removed from the UNESCO world heritage list (to include that of heritage in danger), nor the way in which the project would affect the government’s commitments to achieve carbon neutrality. here 2050.

The Stonehenge site in 2007. © Photo Thegaretwiscombe, CC BY 2.0.

The Stonehenge site in 2007

Judge Davis Holgate, however, rejected the arguments raised by the plaintiffs, finding in particular that the government is respecting its protocol by committing to working together with organizations to achieve its carbon objectives during the construction of the tunnel.

John Adams, the director of the SSWHS, responded in a statement saying that the ruling was a “hard blow that exposes the site to state-sponsored vandalism”. Despite everything, he reaffirms his desire to ” continue the fight “ and announces its intention to appeal the decision.

However, part of the appeal, relating to the environmental impact of the project, has not yet been addressed by the court and will be decided later.

Built in stages between approximately 3000 and 2300 BC. BC, Stonehenge is one of the most important prehistoric megalithic monuments in the world due to its size and architectural precision. The site is made up of a set of standing stones arranged in circular structures and many other archaeological remains, such as tumuli. It is considered a place of worship, astronomical observatory or even burial space.

The Stonehenge site around 1885. Source Wikimedia / Public domain

The site of Stonehenge around 1885.

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