Background to the tunnel plan
Plans to dual the A303 road running past Stonehenge have been around for many years before the last tunnelling scheme was dropped in 2007. However, proposals for a new short-based (probably bored) tunnel have re-emerged. Schemes to bypass the stones either north or south were also proposed in the past, but these options are highly damaging and are unlikely to go ahead. So, is tunnelling under the line of the current road the only viable option?
The opening of the new visitor centre and A344 road closure in 2013 only happened after a broad consensus of agreement was reached. However, not everyone was happy and some local residents claimed that closing the A344 has only made local traffic problem worse. The Stonehenge Traffic Action Group (STAG) and Winterbourne Stoke.Bypass Angst (WiSBAng) were soon formed as a result. STAG's primary aim is the support the dualling of the A303 and reduce the amount of traffic going through the local villages of Shrewton, Larkhill and Winterbourne Stoke. After many years of impass the tunnel idea is now back on the agenda. The general idea behind the tunnel is to remove one of the major bottlenecks on the A303 route and hide the road from view - thus returning Stonehenge to a state ‘splendid isolation’. In principle this is a good idea, but they are a few major problems as we shall see...
Firstly, what sort of tunnel would be built at Stonehenge, a longer bored tunnel running the whole length of the World Heritage Site (WHS) or shorter bored tunnel or a cut and cover solution? Then, there is the issue of the approach cuttings scarring the landscape and the associated high lighting columns and electrical cabling. A cut and cover tunnel will involve extensive piling and ground excavation works and a bore tunnel would encounter problems with soft chalk and a sub-surface route. Another issue would be how long would such tunnels last? Stonehenge has been around for over 4,000 thousand years, but major construction projects such as this only have a guarenteed life-span of around 120 years before major reconstruction work would be needed again. All of the tunnel ideas interfere with the archaeology of the World Heritage Site (WHS) and go beneath the water table at Stonehenge Bottom and finally there is the price tag which was last quoted at ½ a billion pounds in 2007!
So, what is the answer to Stonehenge? Well it all goes back to reaching a ‘broad consensus of agreement’. In 2013, the A303 was resurfaced with 'low-noise/extra smooth' tarmac without complaint. But, what else could be done without raising concern? Average speed cameras have been proposed, but slowing the traffic down then contradicts the aims of those who want to speed the traffic up and develop the A303 into a full expressway. Politicians and business leaders in the south-west often cite a lack of transport funding for the region as having an adverse effect on business. Their argument often focuses directly on the missing dual carriageway link at Stonehenge. But this is not the whole story. The potential for protest at the stones also raises another question. Protestors such as former Save Stonehenge group now have now become the Stonehenge Alliance are well organised and will take a prominent stand against the scheme.
In 2009, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) suggested that the traffic on the A303 is generally no worse than it has always been and burying the road underground will stop people experiencing the thrill of seeing the stones from the A303. It has also been suggested that improving the whole A303 route would have an adverse effect of increasing the number of second-homes as people would be able to travel down to Devon and Cornwall and back in a shortened time span. On one-hand upgrading the A303 is a tricky issue without a straightforward answer. On the other-hand supporters of the tunnel realise that most people do travel to Stonehenge by car or by bus/coach and congestion can be a real problem, especially in the summer and that something needs to happen. So what could be done instead of a hugely damaging tunnel project?
Problems with the tunnel idea
I believe it is better to do things at Stonehenge which will not cause irrevocable damage to the site; therefore I am not in favour of any of the proposed governmental tunnel plans. What is needed at Stonehenge is a plan to utilise what is there without permanently damaging any of the landscape. The main problems with a tunnel are;
1. It would only have a guaranteed life-span of 120 years
2. A substantial amount of dual carriageway will still be above ground within the World Heritage Site (WHS)
3. It would include long approach cuttings, deep excavations, cabling and piling works
4. It would be sub-surface for much of its length and go below the water table at Stonehenge Bottom (sump) and will need pumping-out to remain dry
5. It would be very expensive and damaging
Small-scale intervention is the answer
Apart from superfluous signage removal, road screening (with trees and scrubs) and introduction of average speed cameras on the A303 - The embankment at Stonehenge Bottom offers a place where a real difference could be made without seriously damaging the landscape. The A303 embankment is a twentieth century man-made creation and this could be punctuated with a new entranceway in conjunction with the construction of a new shuttle bus drop-off point and parallel access road (bridleway) running to the south of the A303. This Local Access Road (LAR) could be barrier controlled and used for some local traffic, maintenance and farm vehicles, thus separating out slower moving traffic from the main A303.
Much of the traffic on the A303 comes from visitors travelling from the east (A34/M3/M25) and traverses the World Heritage Site (WHS) and back again in order to visit the stones. Whilst this is not too much of a problem for coaches (which can carry an average of around 50 to 75 people depending on it being single or double-decked), it is car-use which is the problem. If an extra car park was situated to the east of the stones and new access route created then this could really help reduce the amount of unnecessary traffic.
People could then park and take an English Heritage shuttle bus (via the new access link) and have the option of alighting at the new ‘Avenue Approach’ entrance (which would include a ticket booth, small shop and toilet facilities) The walk from this new entrance to Stonehenge via the old A344 cutting would be slightly longer at about 500m, as opposed to 300m from the bus turning circle to the west. However, another 900m walk (via the Avenue) to the Heel Stone would offer visitor the chance to see the site in context which is something that has been denied for so long.
Visitors arriving at Stonehenge via the new ‘Avenue Approach’ entrance would still have the option of staying on the bus and travelling onto Airman’s Corner and the approaching the stones from the existing route if they so wished. Shuttle buses would then travel back from the stones stopping at the Visitor Centre; before running back to Countess East. A shuttle bus can carry up to 30 people as opposed to an average of 2 to 3 in a car.
These new arrangements would see a noticeable reduction in traffic on the A303 and would also have the distinct advantage of being able to be taken away at any future date without permanently scarring the landscape.
Apart from some aspects (which could easily be screened by landscaping, as noted above) this project would be mainly out of sight. I realise that the A303 can get very congested (especially during the summer) and I am not against the need for extra capacity. It is just how it’s provided which is the problem. The idea to build a tunnel is like the proverbial ‘use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut’. It would make an expensive mess when the solution proposed above would be simple to implement and highly cost-effective.
Potential benefits of this plan
1. This proposal is substantially more cost effective than the tunnel
2. It would allow for extra parking outside of the WHS and visitor arrival via the Avenue
3. It could be deconstructed at a later date without causing any irrevocable damage to the landscape and be a summer only operation (if deemed necessary)
4. It would provide extra capacity and separate out slower traffic from the main line of the A303 (which would remain as a single carriageway road)
Kate Fielden of the Save Stonehenge Campaign pointed towards upgrading the Drove Road/Bridleways in one of her many blogs on the subject prior to the former tunnel scheme being cancelled in 2007. Both Fielden and a number of others suggested that a light touch is needed rather than an obtrusive new dual carriageway link. I also believe that this is the right approach.
Any new tunnel will cost a lot more than the £500m last quoted in 2007. So, surely it is time to consider an achievable alternative. Any forthcoming battle might rest on the will of government to bulldoze a road through the World Heritage Site (WHS) verses the achievable alternative ideas of those against.