Stonehenge could be stripped of its World Heritage Site status if road tunnel proceeds

The De-List

Stonehenge could be stripped of its World Heritage Site status if road tunnel proceeds

View of Stonehenge, the famed Neolithic monument in Wiltshire, England. (Cajeo Zhang/Unsplash)

The United Kingdom has been experiencing a rough go of it as of late when it comes to two of its most treasured UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Last week, UNESCO formally delisted Liverpool’s Maritime Mercantile City historic zone due to what it viewed as “serious deterioration” caused by ongoing waterfront development. Now, the United Nations’ heritage agency has confirmed that Stonehenge will indeed be added to its Heritage in Danger list and then potentially stripped of its World Heritage Site status if a roughly $2.3 billion highway tunnel near the archaeological icon is permitted to be built as planned. Managed by English Heritage, the prehistoric stone monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, South West England, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Liverpool’s removal from the list is only the third instance since the World Heritage program commenced in 1978. The two-mile-long stretch of subterranean highway in Wiltshire could potentially lead to Stonehenge being the fourth. In total there are now 31 World Heritage Sites within the U.K. and British Overseas Territories.

As detailed by The Guardian, the stripping of Liverpool of its prestigious World Heritage Site designation could lead to some of these 31 sites, including Stonehenge, coming under more intense scrutiny due to planned developments around them. In addition to Stonehenge, the Tower of London, the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape, and the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, which were designated in 1988, 2006, and 1995, respectively, are mentioned as being three particular heritage zones that could feel additional heat from UNESCO.

Speaking to The Guardian, Chris Blandford, president of World Heritage UK, lamented the “low awareness at the government level” of how crucial these now-31 sites truly are while calling out their chronic underfunding. Per a 2019 World Heritage UK report, most of these sites received an average of roughly only $6.9 million each in central governmental funding between 2013 and 2018—a measly amount when compared to what the U.K.’s mainland national parks are allocated. In turn, most World Heritage Sites are left to rely on funding from already cash-strapped local authorities to fill in the sizable gaps. As detailed by The Guardian, because of the dire financial straits experienced by local councils, some are permitting controversial developments to proceed that, although lucrative, put their respective heritage sites at risk.

Rendering of a two-road highway tunnel
Rendering of the expanded A303 tunnel entrance. (Courtesy Highways England)

“These are places of international significance,” said Blandford. “They are the best of the best of our cultural heritage. At a time when we’re out [of the European Union] and want to be taken seriously internationally, why not use these incredible assets of such significance to help us do that?”

As for the planned highway expansion project at Stonehenge that UNESCO believes will result in “adverse impact” on the storied site, it actually received a full governmental blessing in November of last when Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, overruled local planning inspectors and allowed for construction to commence. A number of campaigners, including heritage preservationists, archeologists, environmentalists, and druids, moved swiftly to block the decision via two separate legal challenges; just earlier today, the High Court dismissed one of the challenges, a bid by environmental groups to block a larger Department of Transport roadway scheme that includes the Stonehenge-adjacent tunnel.

Burying a stretch of the busy A303 is a move that, in theory, makes good sense as it has become a polluting, perpetually gridlocked eyesore—a variable parking lot filled with motor coaches as far as the eye can see—that has detracted greatly from Stonehenge and the pastoral natural beauty that surrounds it. Removing a portion of A303 from the equation has the potential to undoubtedly transform the landscape for the better, and English Heritage agrees.

However, widening this particularly problematic section of the A303 and relocating it two miles underground into a multi-billion-dollar tunnel has given rise to a whole new slew of serious concerns. Archeological research has found that the targeted construction zone is home to a hidden bounty of priceless ancient artifacts, including a ring of 4,500-year-old shafts stretching roughly two miles around Stonehenge. In total, up to a half-million historic artifacts could be destroyed if construction is allowed to commence, estimated one member of the A303 scientific committee.

A governmental spokesperson told The Guardian that the government disagreed with UNESCO’s decision to pull Liverpool’s World Heritage designation.

“Protecting the heritage and archaeology of the Stonehenge site is a priority for the government and Highways England and we will continue to work closely with Unesco, Icomos, and the heritage and scientific community on next steps,” the spokesperson said.