Stonehenge update for Rescue News 102 (Summer 2007)
Stonehenge update for RN 102
English Heritage's Appeal against refusal of planning permission for its new Stonehenge visitor centre has been allowed and planning permission granted by the Secretary of State, subject to 58 conditions and a Section 106 Agreement between Salisbury District Council and the applicant. This is absolutely no surprise to objectors to a scheme that is part of what has become a very expensive Stonehenge Project led by the Government acting as both promoter and decision-maker.
It would be easy enough to pick the Inspector's Report and the Secretary of State's Decision Letter apart, to question their reasoning and omissions, and to challenge their conclusions; but that would be a somewhat pointless exercise in view of other, strategic, considerations that should now be taken into account. The Stonehenge Project is not in the bag.
Among the planning conditions set for construction of the visitor centre, two are highly significant and both relate, ultimately, to finance.
One condition is that implementation of the visitor centre scheme remains firmly linked to the Published Scheme for the A303. The road scheme, which was considered at Public Inquiry in 2004 and recommended for approval by the Inspector, still awaits a decision by the Secretary of State for Transport. Owing to increased costs and to problems with soft chalk and the water table in Stonehenge Bottom where the 2.1km road tunnel would lie very close to the surface, an A303 Options Review was announced in January 2006 (see RN 98 and RN 99). We are still awaiting the outcome of that review. There is a possibility that any one of the options chosen, apart from both the Published Scheme and doing nothing, would require another Public Inquiry to consider new road Orders.
As mentioned earlier (RN 101), the National Trust, the owner of land over which the contentious visitor-centre land trains would run, informed the visitor-centre Inquiry that it would not support English Heritage's visitor-centre scheme unless a road tunnel of at least 2.9km in length or a less damaging A303 alternative were to be implemented. A 2.9km tunnel was not included in the Options Review.
This raises two interesting questions: (1) would the Trust refuse to release inalienable land at Stonehenge for a shorter road tunnel and (2) how much more than the January 2006 estimate of c.�510m for a 2.1km tunnel would a 2.9km tunnel cost?
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that a number of objectors consider that there could be grounds for Judicial Review, should the A303 Published Scheme be given the go-ahead, one of their concerns being the requirement for protection of the World Heritage Site as a whole.
The second planning condition attached to the visitor centre that is of interest to objectors is that which requires that the development: 'shall be carried out in strict accordance with the approved drawings or with other such details as may subsequently be submitted to and approved in writing by the Local Planning Authority'.
The Inspector, in his conclusions to his Report, makes no mention of the apparent problems in relation to the land train track drawings in which specified width and turning angles would render it impossible to drive along the track with linked vehicles some 2.5m wide as proposed by the applicant. This issue may, of course, be left hanging in the air unless or until it has to be met. But should the Stonehenge Alliance be shown to have been correct in pointing out these anomalies in the drawings, and should any significant changes be required to the width and turning loops of the land train track then it appears likely that a new planning application would be required, including fresh assessment of the archaeological and other implications arising from changes to the precise location of the track.
The Stonehenge saga has now been running for well over a decade without resolution despite some face-saving announcements. It has damaged relations between bodies that ought to be working positively together for the future of the World Heritage Site. The Stonehenge Alliance has, together with other conservation organisations, long been of the opinion that what is proposed for Stonehenge is neither worthy of the World Heritage Site and its visitors nor compliant with the demands of the World Heritage Convention. What hope is there for the future?
First, we must trust that the expense of implementing the officially set out Stonehenge Project will now be considered too great, particularly in view of the extraordinary financial demands of the 2012 Olympics. To proceed with a road scheme that is not considered to be a priority on highways grounds, at enormous cost both in financial terms and in damage to a World Heritage Site, would now seem irresponsible.
Second, we may take some comfort from recent publications. The Government's Heritage White paper (March 2007), proposes to 'clarify and strengthen protection for World Heritage Sites' and 'update planning policy to strengthen the consideration of World Heritage Sites within the planning system'. A planning circular is proposed which will 'further recognise in national policy the need to protect World Heritage Sites as sites of outstanding universal value . . .'. World Heritage Sites will also be placed on the same footing as conservation areas, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. All of these proposals are to be welcomed.
Encouragement may also be felt from a paper published recently in English Heritage's Conservation bulletin (Issue 54, Spring 2007). Christopher Young, in 'The Challenges facing rural World Heritage Sites' (pp.16�17), builds on the recognition that, specifically, Stonehenge and Avebury 'require a landscape-scale approach to their management'. Together with the admission of English Heritage, at the visitor-centre Inquiry, that the whole of the Stonehenge WHS is to be considered as of Outstanding Universal Value, these publications may be seen as long desired steps towards recognition of the value of the WHS as a whole rather than a concentration on some perceived greater value of some constituent parts.
The only satisfactory way forward in resolving the present confrontations over Stonehenge—an undignified battle amongst the conservation bodies concerned—is to go forward from a position with which we can all agree. An interim solution involving closure of the A344 and some improvement to the present visitor facilities would be an acceptable start that would ensure, at relatively little cost, an enhanced experience of Stonehenge for all visitors, including those who may come during the short period of the 2012 Olympics.