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Volume 804: debated on Thursday 23 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the proposed tunnel by-passing Stonehenge.

My Lords, I am very fortunate to be a local resident. We have had more than 20 years of dispute between stakeholders—

My Lords, the development consent order, or DCO, application for a new two-lane dual carriageway for the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down is currently with the Secretary of State for determination. Last week, the Government announced a further extension of the decision deadline until 13 November 2020. This is to enable further consultation following a recent archaeological find.

My Lords, as I said, I am very fortunate to be a local resident. We have had more than 20 years of dispute between stakeholders over this project. The costs are rising above £2 billion and they carry on rising. Now there is further delay. Does my noble friend agree that it seems unlikely that any tunnel could be finished much before 2030, by which time semiautonomous electric vehicles will be commonplace—perhaps even compulsory—making the traffic past Stonehenge less intrusive, less polluting and easier to manage? Because of these advances in vehicle technology, is it just possible that by the time any tunnel might be completed it could already be on the verge of becoming a hugely expensive white elephant?

The Government share my noble friend’s ambition for automation with vehicles and we are working at pace to look at how we can bring that in. However, automated vehicles still need road space and further road enhancements will therefore be necessary. I cannot at this stage comment on how long it would take for a tunnel to be built.

Will my noble friend also give us information today about the A303 west of Stonehenge, up to where it joins the A30? I have travelled that road for over 40 years and am aware, as I know my noble friend will be, that there are many single-carriageway pinch-points west of Stonehenge. If it is going to take this long to build the tunnel and to sort out Stonehenge, is that also going to delay the dualling on the A303 to the west?

The Government have ambitious plans for the whole of the link road, the A358-A303, which links the M3 and the M5. My noble friend is right that there are various projects that have to be done not altogether, otherwise the disruption would be enormous. If my noble friend is referring to the Sparkford to Ilchester section, that DCO has also been extended recently and will be decided by 20 November.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that this has been an extremely frustrating 20 years. I, too, drive past Stonehenge a lot. I find it shameful that one of our greatest monuments is regularly passed by a rumble of trucks day and night and that the area for visitors is so cramped. Given the recent findings about how big, extensive and important the whole site is, would it not be worth putting a big ring road right round the site—at least something that we could get on with much quicker? The stones may fall down at this rate, because we have wasted so much time and money.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that this is a complicated and difficult situation. Certainly, when Stonehenge became a world heritage site, one of the commitments was that we would do something about the road. However, Highways England has done an enormous amount of work around the archaeological elements of the area and continues to employ archaeologists to make sure that we could not only build the tunnel, if it is appropriate, but also preserve the site.

My Lords, Stonehenge is our global heritage flagship. In recent years, it has been brilliantly transformed by English Heritage, which has integrated the wider archaeological landscape with the stones and their significance. English Heritage is supportive of a tunnel, but is the Minister aware that all our 32 world heritage sites need urgent help to recover from the impact of Covid-19? If our heritage assets are to help in the rebuilding of Britain, their custodians need sustainable funding to do so. When will they know what share of the DCMS cultural package they will get?

That question is slightly beyond my remit today, I think, but I will encourage DCMS to be in touch with the noble Baroness with further details.

My Lords, there is a clear environmental aspect to this proposal, but in March the Government announced a £28.8 billion national roads fund to be spent over five years. How does the Minister square this with the claim by the COP 26 president, Alok Sharma, that the Government are investing in zero-emission transport in a co-ordinated way? Do the Government not realise that road building on this scale will inevitably lead to more traffic and more emissions?

I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that zero-emission transport also needs roads, whether zero-emission cars, buses or HGVs. Investing in our road infrastructure is therefore important. The £27.4 billion—the RIS2 funding envelope—goes on enhancements but, as importantly, a significant amount of it goes on maintaining our existing roads.

There is a delay in the Secretary of State making his decision in the light of a recent archaeological find. If the tunnel project does receive the go-ahead from the Secretary of State, what would happen to the project and the construction of the tunnel and its cost if there was a further significant archaeological find on the line of route or close to it, once construction had started?

Highways England uses ground-penetrating radar as part of its geophysical survey strategy and therefore it is confident that the route does not have any further elements in it. As I said, it employs archaeologists and, were anything to come to light, obviously appropriate arrangements could be made.

My Lords, as a Wiltshire native who loves Stonehenge, I have waited 35 years for this new road. Assuming a November decision, when will work start properly and when will the new road open? What are the plans for the existing road, which is very popular with local people such as myself and has several good walks leading off it?

I hope that the noble Baroness will appreciate more good walks if and when this tunnel is actually built. As she will know, the project is currently at the outline business case. When we get to the final business case, if the DCO is approved, further information will be available at that stage about start-of-works and open-for-traffic dates.

My Lords, as an ex-archaeologist, I am absolutely horrified by this whole project. There is absolutely no way of knowing whether there are more potential finds on the current route. It is not a good idea to say that there is nothing more to find. However, as a climate campaigner, I am much more horrified by the fact that the Government are still subsidising road building. We are now in a climate crisis and the Government should be living up to some of their magnificent green claims and trying to cut road traffic. Does the Minister agree?

The noble Baroness has asked me similar questions in the past. Of course, the Government have a huge commitment to electric vehicles. We want to see fewer petrol and diesel cars and other vehicles on our roads and we have a huge commitment to electric buses, but I say again that these vehicles need a road to travel on—they do not fly.

My Lords, now that we have experienced Covid and traffic and travel patterns are going to change dramatically, should not the Government take the opportunity to totally rethink the idea of the tunnel and take the entire space and divert the traffic away from where it is now? That would be a great contribution to the environment and to the beauty of Stonehenge and the newly discovered archaeological spaces.

Traffic on the strategic road network is almost back to pre-Covid levels now. Much of that is important freight and people now going out to visit friends and family and to work. While there is an opportunity, as work practices change, to consider how we look at roads in the future, much of that will be focused on encouraging cycling and walking and more changes to road space allocation, rather than trying to clamp down on traffic per se on other roads.