Back to the Future on the A303 at Stonehenge

Mike Birkin

09 December 2014

I remember one freezing cold December evening in 2002 standing in a layby on the A303 in Wiltshire. 

I was ready to go on the BBC 6 o’clock news and respond to the Big Government Announcement of the day. Roll forward almost exactly 12 years and here I am about to be interviewed again, responding to 2014’s Big Government Announcement. Would it surprise you to know that the content was pretty much the same?

Yes, in both cases the Government was shouting that it had finally found a solution and was now committed to a full dualling of the A303 trunk road, past Stonehenge and all the way down to the West Country.

12 years on and what, apart from the colour of the government, has changed? Has the debate moved on? No it hasn’t, it has gone backwards.

I have some form here. I represented environmental organisations on one of the biggest of the many transport studies done across England around the year 2000. The previous conservative administration had pushed forward “the biggest road building programme since the Romans”.  But it ran up against public revulsion at the massive destruction wrought to landscapes such as Twyford Down, Soulsbury Hill, and around Newbury.

Spiralling costs told against it too. Economists and transport planners warned that the economic benefits the government expected were unlikely to happen in the real world.


Rush hour traffic, Birmingham

Faced with these pressures policy began to change in favour of reducing both the growth in traffic and the need to travel. The incoming new labour government commissioned studies into alternatives. There was one for the main routes into the south west, called SWARMMS.

One of the meetings I recall most vividly was a presentation from a sister study, this time called CHUMMS. A lot of thought want into those names. Anyway the consultants did a pretty through survey of what happens when a new or bigger road makes it quicker to get from A to B.

Conventional analysts bunkered down in the Treasury and Department for Transport always reckon this will lead to a more efficient economy. People will be able to do the same things in less time. This notional time saving may be small, but it is repeated millions of times over the lifetime of a road. And this underpins the economic case for most new road capacity.

Out in the real world however, the evidence showed that wasn’t how people behaved at all. They do more things in the same time. Commuting distances increase, people travel further to shops or leisure destinations. Then all sorts of facilities get centralised and major road junctions become destinations in their own right as everything from pet food shops to bowling alleys relocate by them. Bigger roads lead in the end to bigger traffic jams.

Now I can’t say that this wisdom created a huge change in transport thinking. The plans that emerged from SWARMMS were heavily skewed in favour of road expansion – with one exception I’ll come back to at the end.

The plan to part-bury the A303 at Stonehenge duly went to a public inquiry. It would have been carried on but engineers discovered the “wrong kind of chalk”, so it was abandoned on cost grounds in 2007.  

I was no great fan of the new labour way of doing things. But the current disregard for evidence or rational analysis makes me feel positively nostalgic for it.  Politicians and motorist lobbies at Stonehenge this month talked as though none of the debates and learning of the last 30 years had ever happened. It was transport planning through the eyes of a Top Gear presenter. To call it a throwback (which I did) is actually an insult to the 20th century.


Stonehenge Sunrise © Amelia Collins

Doubly distressing was to see how the leading lights of our Heritage bodies lined up to support the plan for a Stonehenge tunnel. In 2006 the National Trust signed up to a joint statement, along with Friends of the Earth and other members of the Stonehenge Alliance. We were united that any future road plan should avoid impacting on the World Heritage Site (WHS).

We don’t know why they’ve changed their mind, since they didn’t consult the Alliance, but change it they have. The Trust now supports a short tunnel despite the inevitable damage this would inflict on the WHS. There would have to be a mile or so of above-ground big scale road engineering. The Trust seems to believe that some parts of the WHS are expendable and their loss can be offset against the gains in the immediate vicinity of the stones.

It’s an odd position for them to take given that their own archaeologist enthuses over how much wonder and hidden knowledge still resides within the WHS landscape. “The Hidden Landscapes project has reminded us once again that the Stonehenge Landscape is among the most precious places on the planet” he writes. But not so precious, it seems, that bits of it can’t be sacrificed for a political stunt.

Fortunately this is a WORLD Heritage Site and to decide what is or is not an acceptable level of damage does not actually rest with the National Trust. That responsibility lies with international bodies. The Government has already been contacted by the UK branch of one, ICOMOS, to express their concern over the short tunnel proposal.


Quiet lanes and Hedgerows in the Blackdown Hills

But I promised you some good news to end on didn’t I?  A decade ago, the debate around road expansion finally hinged around the fate of the Blackdown Hills on the Somerset - Devon border. This nationally important scenic area lay in the path of the A303 super-route to the West Country. For a long while the fate of the Hills hung in the balance. Friends of the Earth played a lead role in the fight to at least send the road another way, and we won.

This time round, despite all the disregard being shown for the lessons of the past, it has never even been suggested that the A303 through the Blackdown Hills should be dualled. It shows what environmental bodies, including government advisers, can do when we stick together and hold fast to our principles. National Trust please take note! 


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