Campaigners have launched a fresh legal battle after the government once again greenlit plans for a controversial road tunnel at Stonehenge, after the development was successfully blocked two years ago.
The Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site campaign (SSWHS) is challenging the decision by the transport secretary, Mark Harper, to allow a £1.7bn scheme to widen roads and dig a two-mile tunnel near the ancient site. The plan is designed to improve traffic on the A303, a congestion hotspot in south-west England.
The historian and president of the Stonehenge Alliance, Tom Holland, said that if the development was permitted to go ahead it would “permanently and irreversibly desecrate the Stonehenge landscape”.
The high court previously struck down a development consent order for the project in July 2021 amid concern about the impact on the Unesco world heritage site, after the former transport secretary Grant Shapps approved the project in November 2020 in defiance of the planning inspectors’ recommendations. The inspectors had said the road works would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the site of the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire.
The judge found Shapps’ decision to approve the project “unlawful” as there was no evidence of the impact on each individual asset at the site, while he had also failed to consider alternative schemes.
Now campaigners say they are being compelled to return to the courts after the Department for Transport gave permission for the tunnel for the second time last month. After further consultations, Harper has approved the same scheme, with minor modifications.
John Adams, one of the three directors of SSWHS and chair of the Stonehenge Alliance, said the group felt they had no choice but to launch a second legal challenge in the face of the government’s “belligerence”.
“The government appears both blind and deaf to concerns about the damage it will perpetrate on this historic and much-loved landscape. It has ignored concerns raised by Unesco and seems hellbent on bulldozing this scheme through before it gets thrown out of government.”
Rowan Smith, a Leigh Day solicitor who represents the campaigners, said: “Our client is shocked that the government appears not to have learned from its mistakes and has repeated the decision to grant development consent for the Stonehenge road scheme.” Smith said the decision appeared to have been made on an unlawful basis again.
But even among conservationists, the scheme has proved divisive, with groups such as Historic England arguing that moving the road would improve the site, while others oppose it. Concerns over the scheme have also been raised on climate grounds.
The Stonehenge site and Avebury were declared a Unesco world heritage site of outstanding universal value in 1986.