National Highways digs in over A303 'rethink'

Chris Ames

National Highways has said it is entitled to stick to its cut-price plans for the A303 at Stonehenge and pushed back against a suggestion from UNESCO that reconsideration of the scheme’s planning application should await a meeting of its world heritage body.

The £2bn scheme does not currently have planning permission after the High Court quashed former transport secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to grant a development consent order against the advice of the Planning Inspectorate.

The court ordered the transport secretary – now Anne-Marie Trevelyan – to redetermine the application.

UNESCO has previously expressed serious concerns over the scheme, which would see the road put into a tunnel with both portals within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS), particularly at the western end.

Ministers have previously rejected the possibility of extending the tunnel so that the western portal lies outside WHS on the grounds that the extra £540m cost cannot be justified.

In April UNESCO submitted a further report on the plans, noting that: ‘No alterations have been made to the Scheme since consideration by the World Heritage Committee in 2021 and the decision of the High Court.’

The report recommends: ‘The proposed western portal of the current Scheme, and associated dual carriageway within a cutting, should not proceed without substantial amendment to avoid adverse impacts on the WHS and the [outstanding universal value] of the World Heritage property, to the fullest extent that is reasonably practicable.’

In its response, National Highways noted that the wording ‘the fullest extent that is reasonably practicable’ derives from Article 4 of the World Heritage Convention and cited the High Court ruling in support of the Government’s view that this allows it to take into account economic and other considerations, i.e. to build a cheaper scheme if it chooses.

The UNESCO report also suggests that the Government should await the Decision of the World Heritage Committee at its 45th session before re-determining the DCO application. The committee was due to meet in July but this has been postponed.

In response, National Highways wrote: ‘We are concerned about the prospect of more delay to the re-determination of the DCO Scheme, noting that, at the time of submitting this response, the date of the 45th session has not been determined.’

It added: ‘As the National Infrastructure Portal states, “The Planning Act 2008 process was introduced to streamline the decision-making process for major infrastructure projects”. Further, indefinite delay waiting for the outcome of a meeting, the date for which has not been confirmed as far as we are aware, conflicts with this fundamental objective of the process.’

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