The twisting saga of the A303 highway expansion under the UNESCO World Heritage Site–listed Stonehenge seems to have hit a brick wall. On Friday, July 30, U.K. high court Justice Holgate ruled that Britain’s Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, had acted unlawfully in approving plans to widen eight miles of the A303 into a double lane highway and run a two-mile-long tunnel under the Stonehenge site.
Although conservationists, archeologists, and druids had been sounding the alarm about the damage the potential road project could do to the ring of 4,500-year-old manmade tunnels that run approximately two miles around the site, Shapps overruled local planning inspectors and signed off on construction in November of 2020. The U.K. government and English charity group English Heritage, which manages over 400 historic sites and monuments, celebrated the move at the time, claiming that burying the stretch of A303 that runs by Stonehenge would knit the pastoral countryside back together, reduce air pollution, and restore views around the stone slabs.
UNESCO didn’t agree and last week confirmed that if the $2.3 billion highway expansion moved ahead, Stonehenge would be placed on the Heritage in Danger list and potentially stripped of its World Heritage Site status (a fate that befell Liverpool on July 21). Then, on Friday, Justice Holgate apparently agreed with the UN cultural body, ruling in favor of petitioners Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) and determining Shapps had pushed through the scheme without considering possible alternatives, despite inspectors’ warnings that digging under the site would cause irreparable, incalculable harm.
In his ruling, Holgate determined that Shapps had failed to take both the physical and cultural harm the proposed tunnel would do to Stonehenge into account in pushing his preferred proposal. Additionally, Holgate ruled that the action was both unlawful and violated World Heritage Site standards.
The government is currently determining how to proceed and will likely present a revised plan at a future date. Historic England, the group that manages the Stonehenge site, told The Guardian that the ruling “missed [an] opportunity to remove the intrusive sight and sound of traffic past the iconic monument and to reunite the remarkable Stonehenge landscape, which has been severed in two by the busy A303 trunk road for decades.”