The Conservative Case for the Stonehenge Tunnel | Henry Dixon-Clegg
The debate over the Stonehenge tunnel boils down to one simple fact: if the road planners, environmentalists and archaeologists of the 1930s knew how congested and gridlocked the part of the A303 by Stonehenge would become in just under one hundred years’ time, they would almost certainly have chosen to build a tunnel near the stones, rather than a carriageway that runs approximately one hundred and sixty-five metres away it.
Drilling a two-mile hole through the ground near Stonehenge may seem to go against conservative principles but in fact, the problem it solves is a greater menace than the one it creates – it allows a historical monument of national importance and recognition to be protected and enjoyed more fully, whilst also bringing positive environmental benefits.
As anyone who has ever either visited Stonehenge or driven past it will know, the road is a blight on the landscape visually, audibly and environmentally. For a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is thousands of years old to have a main road running past it would be stupendous and impossible to believe if it was not already the case. Imagine for example, that there was a proposal to build a busy A-road running the length of Hadrian’s Wall or through the middle of Cheddar Gorge, two locations important for various historical, archaeological and geological reasons. Such suggestions would rightly provoke outcry and would be sure to be rejected by the relevant authorities. Why then is this unsatisfactory outcome accepted in the case of Stonehenge?
Visually, the road is an eyesore and takes away from the dramatic and beautiful spectacle of the ancient stone circle. The noise of the road rudely disturbs the tranquillity of the area around Stonehenge, making the experience of visiting the site far less pleasant. Furthermore, a single carriageway rather than a dual one (which a tunnel could accommodate) creates a bottleneck, merely worsening the problem of pollution. As a popular route for holiday makers and a trunk road regularly used by locals, the A303 often becomes congested around Stonehenge due to this characteristic of only one lane each way. Environmentally this is highly undesirable due to the pollution created by huge volumes of stop start traffic. As conservatives, our primary objectives should be to protect the environment around Stonehenge and make it an enticing and beautiful place to visit. The most pragmatic way to do this is to go ahead with the construction of the tunnel.
This is not to say that a tunnel is the ideal solution; it is merely the lesser of the two evils. Clearly, there are problems involved with the project, not least the archaeological and ecological implications, but it is more agreeable than leaving the situation as it is. Viewers of the wonderful BBC Four sitcom ‘Detectorists’ (if you haven’t seen it before, I strongly recommend it) will recall in series three when Andy is working on an excavation at a building site before development begins. Whilst doing so, he discovers part of a Roman floor but is told by his superiors to keep quiet about the discovery and cover it up so as not to delay the construction project. Whilst I support the tunnel near Stonehenge, this is exactly the outcome I do not want. It is imperative that every effort is made to ensure that any underground structure does not interfere with known archaeological sites and it appears that every effort has indeed been made, as no significant archaeological remains have been found where the work is set to take place. In terms of wildlife and nature, the negative impacts will be offset by new measures such as the installation of four green bridges and the creation of 100 hectares of chalk grassland in place of the current road.
Tom Holland – the President of the Stonehenge Alliance – has railed against the decision allowing the project to go ahead, suggesting that, “This has huge implications not just for Britain, but for the entire world. What’s to stop people at Giza, or in Rwanda getting rid of gorillas because they’re in the way of mining developments?” The fundamental difference is extremely obvious but also crucial in understanding why the tunnel must be built. The Stonehenge tunnel is not going to be used for mining, monetary gain or nefarious purposes. Instead it will protect, conserve and enhance a World Heritage Site and the surrounding environment, allowing Stonehenge and the nearby countryside to be enjoyed without the blight of a major road less than two hundred metres away.
Franky, the fact that the tunnel will reduce journey times is irrelevant, it is about far more than that. Stonehenge is one of Britain’s most historic and well-known monuments which deserves a space of its own, free from the fumes, noise and commotion of twenty first century life. Building a tunnel may not be the perfect solution to the problem, but as Timothy Darvill, a professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University notes, “Many parties seem to forget that the project is not about building a new road in a World Heritage Site: the project is all about taking a very busy road out of the WHS by undergrounding it.” If a new road was being built near Stonehenge today, no one would even countenance it being so close to the site as the current road is. The best option therefore, is to remove the road from the landscape of the World Heritage Site and place it out of sight, so that Stonehenge can be enjoyed in all its glory.