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Court finds government plan for Stonehenge tunnel ‘unlawful’

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Campaigners have won a High Court battle to overturn plans for a £1.7bn tunnel under the ancient monument of Stonehenge, throwing the future of one of Britain’s most expensive and controversial road-building projects into doubt. 

Mr Justice Holgate on Friday ruled that the government’s decision to allow a dual carriageway and tunnel to be built through the World Heritage site was “unlawful”. The court found that Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, had failed to properly consider alternatives to the scheme and had not taken into account the harm to the heritage site.

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Ministers have for years hoped to ease the traffic bottleneck on the A303, one of the key arterial roads between London and the south-west of England which passes close to the World Heritage site on Salisbury Plain. 

Shapps in November approved a Highways England project to build a new eight-mile dual carriageway in the area, with a two-mile tunnel under the area immediately surrounding the monument.

Highways England, a government-owned company responsible for maintaining the country’s motorway and A-road system, argued that the enlarged road and tunnel would remove the blight of cars running so close to the prehistoric standing stones, return the landscape to “something like its original setting” and help the south-west’s economy.

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The road-building scheme had the support of English Heritage, a charity that manages historic monuments, and the National Trust, a conservation charity, but Shapps ruled against the advice of planning inspectors, who had warned that the tunnel would have a “significantly adverse effect” on one of the best-known prehistoric monuments in Europe.

Campaigners outside the High Court, London, in June © Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Rowan Smith, a solicitor at Leigh Day, who had worked for the campaigners, said the government would have to go back to the drawing board before a new planning decision could be made.

“For now, Stonehenge is safe,” he added.

Highways England said it was still convinced that the plan was the best solution to tackling the traffic bottleneck, but would wait to see the Department for Transport’s next move.

“We are hugely disappointed by the decision, and we know this will also dismay many people in the local community who have waited decades for a solution and all those who use the road to travel to work or on holiday in the south-west,” it said.

The Stonehenge Alliance, a campaign group that crowdfunded £80,000 to support its legal challenge, said it “could not be more pleased” by the decision, and that climate change meant that ministers should reconsider their road-building plans.

The Transport Action Network pressure group, which has led challenges to try to stop the building of major new roads, said the government’s whole £27bn road-building strategy was “starting to unravel”. 

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The UK’s “roads programme is looking increasingly untenable at a time of climate crisis. It increases emissions when we need rapid cuts,” the group said. 

The Department for Transport said: “We are disappointed in the judgment and are considering it carefully before deciding how to proceed.”

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