Stonehenge could be put on world heritage danger list over tunnel plan

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recommended that Stonehenge be listed as ‘World Heritage in Danger’ due to the A303 upgrade scheme and is again pushing for an extension to the tunnelled section to mitigate the detrimental effects to the site.

Aerial view of Stonehenge (Image: Adobe Stock) An aerial view of UNESCO World Heritage Site Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, UK. (Image: Adobe Stock)

National Highways’ £1.7bn A303 Stonehenge (Amesbury to Berwick Down) scheme in the UK will see an A road in Wiltshire turned into a dual carriageway, including a 2 mile (3.3km) tunnel.

However, the main issue for the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, is that there will be around 3.5km of dual carriageway within uncovered cuttings on the Stonehenge site.

According to news reports Labour’s Keir Starmer – projected to be the UK’s next prime minister after the 4 July election – did not commit to the €2.4 billion (US$2.6 billion) project, while leadership in the Lib Dem Party was inclined to ‘scrap’ the idea altogether.

What’s going on with the Stonehenge tunnel?

Doubts about the tunnel project renewed last month after Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS), a group opposed to the construction of the tunnel, was granted permission to appeal the government’s approval of the scheme.

New legal action from SSWHS is expected later this year.

Since original approval in 2020, the plan was ditched in 2021 before a revival in 2023. It was championed by the UK’s Conservative Party but, with Labour expected to assume power this summer, the possibility of a redesign or cancellation appears likely.

Proponents for the tunnel argue the road improvements and tunnel system are necessary to reduce automobile congestion and improve access to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Opponents believe the expansion would harm the environment and the surrounding area and have also questioned the cost; many believing the final figure will be much higher than the approximately €2 billion stated.

What’s next for the A303?
Render of A303 tunnel (Image: National Highways) Render of the A303 tunnel project near Stonehenge. (Image: National Highways)

Preparatory work scheduled for last month was delayed.

Tunnel work, originally slated for 2025, is also at risk of getting pushed back.

According to a draft decision from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee from 24 June, the organisation is considering adding the Stonehenge site to its “danger list”.

While sites added to the danger list don’t receive additional protections, UNESCO can employ immediate funding strategies to danger locales. That decision will be voted on when UNESCO meets in India at the end of July.

Contractors for the Stonehenge tunnel

Even though change to the build is probable, the project had already announced contractors for what was expected to be a multi-year build.

The three-way European MORE joint venture, consisting of Spanish contractor FCC, Italy’s WeBuild, and Austria’s BeMo Tunnelling, is lined up as the main contractor on the 12.8km-stretch of road upgrades.

The FCC-led JV enlisted Atkins, Jacobs, and Spanish designer Sener as the design joint venture. Costain and Mott MacDonald have been awarded a €70 million (US$74.8 million)  contract to help coordinate and oversee the construction of the scheme.

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