The UK government could be fighting more legal challenges against the controversial proposed A303 tunnel near the Stonehenge standing stones, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 150km-long A303 is one of the main routes from London in southeast England to Devon and Cornwall counties in the southwest. National Highways’ Road Investment Strategy has committed to upgrading many of the remaining single carriageway sections of the A303, including one next to Stonehenge - a popular tourist destination, particularly during summer when it often becomes a major bottleneck.
Last year, National Highways appointed the joint venture MORE as preferred contractor for the 13km-long A303 Amesbury-to-Berwick Down scheme - including the 3.2km tunnel. The joint venture partners include FCC Construcción (42.5%), WeBuild (42.5%) and BeMo Tunnelling (15%). The cost of putting the A303 into a tunnel next to Stonehenge is estimated at around US$2.2 billion.
National Highways says the tunnel would run close the existing A303 route, but a further 50m away from the standing stones. The tunnel would, therefor, avoid important archaeological sites and not intrude on the view of the setting sun from the stones during the winter solstice.
At the beginning of July, the UK government granted a Development Consent Order for the A303 Stonehenge scheme. In a statement at the time of the granting, National Highways noted that its plans were initially granted consent in 2020. But following a legal challenge then and a later High Court ruling against the decision-making process – both setbacks for the road agency – the application was revamped and the project tweaked, a process taking more than a year.
Local media now report that opponents of the tunnel have taken their first step in a legal challenge to the government’s development consent order. Campaign group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site, a coalition of three groups, has sent the government a pre-application protocol letter, the first step for filing a claim for a judicial review which would stall the project.
Chris Todd, a director of Transport Action Network, one of the groups, said the current scheme is the same as the one that was thrown out in 2021. “We believe there are strong grounds why this approval should also be struck down. We will do everything within our power to safeguard this most iconic of sites for future generations.”
London law firm Leigh Day, representing Save Stonehenge, noted “an unfortunate sense of déjà vu”. The issues surround the continued status of Stonehenge as a World Heritage Site and the impact that the tunnel project and road development would have on climate change. “If the government, following correspondence, refuses to accept that, then our client intends to launch another claim for judicial review.”
According to National Highways, Costain and Mott MacDonald will be operating as the "Delivery Assurance Partner", providing technical and construction management expertise by helping mobilise the main works contractor, oversee construction, assist the discharge of consent requirements and assure the design. The construction phase is scheduled to take five years. Before this, Wessex Archaeology will carry out archaeological mitigation work, while Octavius will undertake preliminary work, including the reconfiguration of local authority roads. Archaeological fieldwork and preliminary work will start first, with the main five-year construction phase to follow that programme.