The Department for Transport has given the green light to a controversial proposal for a new two-mile road tunnel that will run close to the Stonehenge world heritage site.
The decision comes following a warning from the Planning Inspectorate of “permanent, irreversible harm” if the project were to go ahead and has provoked furore from wildlife and heritage-preservation campaigners.
The £2.4bn dual-carriageway tunnel will take the A303 trunk road – which currently passes close by the prehistoric monument – between the Wiltshire towns of Amesbury and Berwick Down.
It’s hoped that the development will cut journey times in the region, given the current single-track section of road is prone to lengthy delays. Construction is due to begin by 2023 and expected to last for five years.
The project is the source of much consternation because of fears it could compromise the integrity of the national landmark.
The Stonehenge Alliance said that it “deeply regrets” transport secretary Grant Shapps’ approval of the project and will continue with its efforts to prevent the work starting.
The campaign group added: “It will breach the UK’s international treaty obligation (World Heritage Convention 1972) not to damage the world heritage site and the UK’s legal commitment to address climate change.”
But Highways England, which oversees road infrastructure development across the country, said: “We’re really pleased that we’ve been given the go-ahead to make the much-needed improvements to the A303 past Stonehenge a reality.
“It’s an important step in finally sorting out a road that doesn’t work for drivers, for people who live, work and holiday in Wiltshire and the south-west.”
The body claims to have appointed a number of archaeological specialists who will “work to record and preserve any archaeological finds”.
Campaigners are especially concerned about the potential impact of the building on a series of historic shafts that were recently discovered in the vicinity of Stonehenge, but Highways England said the new road will be at least 500 metres away from these.
The decision deadline for a secondary phase of the project – which would widen the road to two lanes in each direction between the Podimore and Sparkford bypasses – has been pushed back for a second time to 29 January 2021.
How Autocar writers would fix Britain’s roads and transport
Government vows to ‘accelerate’ investment in UK road network