£1.31bn Stonehenge road tunnel contracts signed despite uncertainty over world heritage site’s future

Announcement "in no way pre-empts any decision", as decision over controversial tunnel still to be made

A picture of Stonehenge around dusk; clouds overhead are tinted red and on the left a crescent moon is visible.
Image: Simons41 (Canva), CC0.

After years of protests, debates, and court hearings contracts worth £1.31bn have been signed to build a tunnel near Stonehenge. A surprising move, since any decision to build is still to be made. Local authorities hope to cut down journey time with the construction of the tunnel, but several heritage professionals fear the authenticity of the site and the surrounding landscape could be harmed. And not to mention, risking the UNESCO World Heritage Status.

The plan to build a tunnel under Stonehenge was first proposed in 2014, as local residents and officials were worried about people driving slow on the busy highway, in order to get pictures of the monument. The tunnel plan received the green light in November 2020. The then British transport secretary Grant Shapps approved a £1.7bn scheme, but against the recommendations of planning officials.

Shapps’ decision was later overruled by the High Court, saying it was “unlawful” for several reasons. For example, the secretary’s plan for the tunnel did not consider alternative schemes, in accordance with the World Heritage Convention and common law. For now, authorities and activists are waiting on the judgement from the British justice secretary, as they are now re-examining the case.

No way pre-empts

National Highways stressed that the announcement “in no way pre-empts any decision” made on the scheme, the BBC reported. The overall cost of the scheme will be 1.7bn, but the contracts signed here were worth £1.31bn.

Derek Parody, the tunnel scheme’s project director, said the signing of the contracts meant that if construction can proceed, “having these contractors in place puts us in the strongest possible position to deliver this transformational scheme and deliver the benefits we know it can.” The contracts would only become live “once the Secretary of State has concluded the planning process,” he added.

Artefacts at risk

English Heritage, the charity that manages Stonehenge and over 400 other historic properties in England, is one of the multiple big heritage institutions in favour of the tunnel, EHT reported already in 2020. However, other parties feared that the construction would damage Stonehenge and have spoken out against these plans. Notably, a UNESCO committee urged the UK government not to go through with the plans.

The independent scientific committee working on the plans also warned that half a million artefacts could be lost in the construction. Since the tunnel would actually be further away from the stones than the current road, it seems like a paradox. However, the tunnel is now planned to cut through the surrounding landscape and could harm the smaller and less visible archaeological finds there.

Especially for neolithic sites like Stonehenge the surrounding area is rather important for the archaeological context. For example, archaeologists were recently stunned after the discovery of a major neolithic site in Spain about the placing of several megaliths. “They are generally oriented to the solstices and equinoxes, but there are also solar orientations in the alignments and the cromlechs”, one expert involved commented.

Whether the tunnel will actually be built remains to be seen, as the justice secretary still needs to review the case and pass judgement. One thing is certain if the tunnel will be dug after all: the changes for the UNESCO status of Stonehenge, the tourist industry around the site, and the (uncovered) archaeological artefacts present are imminent.