Stonehenge campaigners’ last-chance bid to save site from road tunnel

<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

They are a disparate bunch. Archaeologists, environmentalists, historians, transport experts, countryside campaigners and druids.

But they will come together in the Strand in central London on Tuesday with a common purpose: to stop the bulldozers from, in their mind, wreaking havoc at one of the UK’s most iconic sites.

They will try to convince the high court over three days that the government’s plan to build a two-mile road tunnel close to the great circle of Stonehenge will permanently disfigure a unique and globally important landscape.

“It’s David and Goliath stuff,” said John Adams, the chair of the Stonehenge Alliance, which has fought against the tunnel and other road projects around the stones for more than 20 years. Though lots of disciplines are represented, they lack the heft of the government machine. “We’re up against the might of the Department for Transport, National Highways and so on. We’re a small organisation – mostly retired people. But the court case is critical. It’s the only thing keeping the earth diggers away,” he said.

Champions of the tunnel argue it will ease congestion on the A303, a major route from the south-east of England to the south-west, and claim the experience of visiting the stones will be more pleasant because the sight and sound of the traffic will vanish.

But critics insist it will cause irreversible damage to one of the UK’s most important prehistoric sites, perhaps causing it to lose its Unesco world heritage status. It will also be expensive. The government puts the cost at £1.7bn, but the campaigners say it will be £2.5bn.

In 2017, the Tory government unveiled plans for a 1.8-mile tunnel and a lengthy official examination was launched. Planning inspectors concluded a tunnel would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the site but nevertheless, in 2020, the then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, over-ruled the inspectors and gave the go-ahead.

The Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site campaign (SSWHS), a company set up by members of the alliance, took the government to the high court and, in 2021, a judge found Shapps’s decision was “unlawful” as there was no evidence of the impact on each individual asset at the site and said he had failed to consider alternative schemes.

But this summer, a new transport secretary, Mark Harper, again gave the go-ahead for the tunnel plan, with minor modifications.

SSWHS swung into action again and launched a fresh legal battle. There was sadness when, in July, one of the campaign’s leading lights, Kate Fielden, died aged 79 after a short illness. “In a way, it knocked the stuffing out of us, but also made us all the more determined to carry on in her memory,” said Adams.

The campaign has raised more than £80,000 for legal fees for the new challenge, including a donation from Dale Vince, the green entrepreneur and former new age traveller.

The SSWHS lawyers are seeking a judicial review, arguing the plan should go back before the inspectors and claim that it is irrational for the government not to give more weight to concerns from Unesco about the tunnel.

The druid King Arthur Pendragon, chief of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, will be one of those outside the high court this week protesting against the tunnel.

“It’s arrogance from the government,” he said. “The inspectors have said it’s a bad idea, but the government has just ignored them and decided they’ll bloody well do what they want to do. Ridiculous.”

Lois Lloyd, an archdruid who speaks on behalf of Female Druids United and Open Access To Stonehenge, said a tunnel would lead to the loss of one of Britain’s great sights – the view of the circle from the A303. “A lot of people don’t realise that, after the tunnel finishes, you will not see the stones as a distant view and you’ll have to pay to see them unless you are fit enough to be able to walk or cycle or horse ride down the footpaths,” she said.

The historian Tom Holland, who is president of the Stonehenge Alliance, said he felt despair at the government’s intransigence. “Whether they’re stuck in a groove or obduracy or it’s electoral considerations, I just don’t know, but a tunnel will inflict unspeakable damage on Britain’s most significant prehistoric landscape,” he added.

Holland said the impact of a tunnel would be felt across the world if it led to Stonehenge being stripped of Unesco status. “That would not only be humiliating for Britain but disastrous for world heritage sites across the world. If a wealthy country like Britain trashes their world heritage sites, it bodes badly for the rest of the world. I just hope the high court will save them blowing £2.5bn they don’t really have.”

The government declined to comment.