Smart Transport

Government loses Stonehenge tunnel court case

Traffic on the single-carriageway section of the A303 near Stonehenge

The High Court has ruled that transport secretary Grant Shapps ‘acted unlawfully’ when granting permission for a dual carriage and short tunnel through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS).

The judgement quashes development consent for an eight-mile road project, which includes two miles of tunnel past Stonehenge and within the WHS.

Highways England announced in 2020 it planned invest £27.4 billion in the strategic road network across the country over the next five years, including the tunnel. 

The ruling was delivered following a judicial review of the secretary of state’s decision to allow the project, brought by campaign group, Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS).

Law firm, Leigh Day said Shapps allowed the scheme under the National Planning Policy Statement for National Networks (NPSNN) against the advice of a panel of expert planning inspectors who concluded that the £1.7bn scheme would cause significant harm to the integrity of the WHS.

The judge, Mr Justice Holgate, found that the secretary of state ‘unlawfully failed’ to consider fewer damaging ways of relieving the existing A303 and that he had made an ‘error of law’ to consider alternatives to the scheme, including a longer tunnel, which may have been less damaging to the WHS.

The judge agreed that, in breach of rules in the NPSNN and the Planning Act (PA 2008), Shapps had not properly assessed the risk of harm to each heritage asset within the WHS.

As part of his judgement, Holgate noted the transport secretary’s acceptance that the road scheme would have caused permanent and irreversible harm to the WHS.

John Adams, director at Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) and acting chairman of the Stonehenge Alliance, said: “We could not be more pleased about the outcome of the legal challenge.

“The Stonehenge Alliance has campaigned from the start for a longer tunnel if a tunnel should be considered necessary.

“Ideally, such a tunnel would begin and end outside the WHS. But now that we are facing a climate emergency, it is more important that this ruling should be a wake-up call for the Government.

“It should look again at its roads programme and take action to reduce road traffic and eliminate any need to build new and wider roads that threaten the environment as well as our cultural heritage.”

SSWHS said it awaits the secretary of state's decision on whether he will appeal against the judgement and said, should he do so, the legal battle will continue.

A spokesperson at the Department for Transport (DfT) said: "We are disappointed in the judgment and are considering it carefully before deciding how to proceed."

A spokesperson at Highways England said: “This is a setback, but we remain confident our project is the best solution to the ongoing issues along the A303 past Stonehenge and was developed after a long and extensive collaboration with our key stakeholders.

“We are hugely disappointed by the decision, and we know this will also dismay many people in the local community who have waited decades for a solution and all those who use the road to travel to work or on holiday in the south west.”

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