The Secretary of State has today granted a Development Consent Order (DCO) for works to the A303 in Wiltshire which include the “Stonehenge Tunnel”, satisfying himself that there is a clear need for the development. The decision letter can be found here. Once constructed, the development will effectively remove the ability to ‘freeview’ the Stones by passing traffic. As someone who travels regularly to the South West (from the South East), I have mixed feelings about this development. Yes, I have experienced the horrors of that section of the A303 at its worst. But I have also taken great pleasure in the possibility of a fleeting glimpse of one of the most iconic structures in the known world and the nestling countryside which surrounds it.
In his decision, the SoS found that the works would “contribute to the objective of creating a high-quality route between the South East and the South West that would meet future traffic needs and result in journey times being more reliable and reduced”, noting that the traffic problems on the A303, particularly on the approach to Stonehenge, are “widely recognised”. It would also lead, he claims, to “an improved environment for people and communities by way of a reduced severance, particularly in Winterbourne Stoke and important benefits for communities currently suffering from rat running as a result of current conditions with the existing A303 route”.
Some key elements of the decision:
The development, which includes the provision of new and/or altered rights of way, would not have any material adverse effects on adjacent farming operations, save for during its construction.
On the visual impact of the development and its settings, the SoS agreed with the Examiners that substantial harm would arise, particularly with regard to the physical connectivity between the monuments and the significance that they derive from their settings. This includes the physical form of the valleys, with their historic significance for past cultures, and the presence of archaeological remains. However, significant stakeholders (including Wiltshire Council, the National Trust, the English Heritage Trust, DCMS and Historic England) place more important on the benefits to the World Heritage Site (WHS) from the removal of the existing A303 road compared to any consequential harmful effects elsewhere.
Interested Parties referred to the Hidden Landscapes Project archaeological find which is a series of large pit structures surrounding Durrington Walls within the WHS but outside the DCO boundary. Of this, they argued that whilst it is acknowledged that the archaeological find would not be physically damaged by the Development, the WHS ought to be treated as a single heritage asset and accordingly protected in its entirety.
The religious/spiritual significance of the WHS as a whole was highlighted, Interested Parties arguing that such archaeological finds highlight the need for further research and assessment of the landscape as a whole. It was suggested that the Secretary of State should take a precautionary approach and refuse the development or alternatively should re-open the examination to allow the evidence on the archaeological find to be fully tested. However, the SoS remained of the opinion that the surveys and evaluations conducted as part of the DCO process were adequate to ensure that any features of a similar nature to these within the DCO limits would have been detected.
Following further consultations in July and August, the SoS was satisfied that Interested Parties have been provided with adequate opportunity to scrutinise all relevant documents and make their views known on this matter both during and since the examination. Further, in response to the suggestion that the examination should be reopened to consider this matter, he noted that there is no legislative provision that allows for the re-opening of the examination. Nevertheless, he indicated that, in the interests of good administration and fairness, this be treated as if it were “further information” and therefore taken into account in his decision.
He also recognised the landscape and visual impact concerns raised by Interested Parties and agreed that there will be both adverse and beneficial visual and landscape impacts. He was satisfied the development has been designed to accord with the National Planning Policy Statement for National Networks (NPSNN) and that reasonable mitigation had been included to minimise harm to the landscape. He recognised the adverse harm caused but considered that the beneficial impacts throughout most of the WHS outweigh the harm caused at specific locations and therefore considered that there is no conflict with the aims of the NPSNN. For these reasons, he considers landscape and visual effects to be of neutral weight in the overall planning balance.
He also considered the individual and cumulative carbon emission concerns raised by other Interested Parties but concluded that the development would be in accordance with national and local policies and guidance and that the increase in carbon emissions that would result are not so significant that it would have a material impact on the ability of the Government to meet its carbon reduction targets
Consultation responses from the Stonehenge Alliance called for the SoS to have regard to the need for reassessment of the future of the Road Investment Strategy 2: 2020-2025 (“RIS2”) following Covid-19 and advised awaiting the outcome of the subsequent legal challenge to RIS2 by the Transport Action Network. This approach was rejected.
In response to allegations of a breach of international obligations, the SoS did not accept that a finding of harm (whether substantial or less than substantial) to the attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value of Stonehenge must inevitably mean that the grant of the DCO would result in the UK being in breach of its obligations under the WHC.(United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation Convention concerning the protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972)
The Stonehenge Alliance and other Interested Parties considered that approval of the development would be contrary to, amongst other things, the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive; the Habitats Directive; the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 in respect of the Salisbury Plain SPA and River Avon SAC; the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Habitats; the Birds Directive in respect of Annex I species; the Aarhus Convention, in respect of genuine public participation in environmental decision-making; the European Convention on the protection of the Archaeological Heritage; the European Landscape Convention; the SEA Directive and the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 on the environmental impacts of the planned A303/A358 corridor improvements programme alone and in combination.
The Secretary of State denied such assertions and concluded that there would be no impediment to a decision made in accordance with the NPSNN pursuant to subsections (4), (5) and (6) of section 104 of the Climate Change Act 2008.
Natural England, as the Statutory Nature Conservation Body, agreed that no likely significant effects are anticipated to occur on the River Avon Special Area of Conservation, and therefore an Appropriate Assessment would not be required the Environment Agency, in respect of its remit for hydrological and hydrogeological matters, also agreed that there would be no adverse effects on the integrity of the River Avon Special Area of Conservation.
The SoS is satisfied that the measures relied upon for the conclusions of the Habitats Regulations Assessment are sufficiently secured by relevant provisions in the DCO and that sufficient information has been provided by the Applicant to demonstrate beyond reasonable scientific doubt that there would be no adverse effect on the integrity of the River Avon SAC either alone or in-combination with plans or projects with regard to specific natural habitats identified during the examination, the DCO secures the provision and maintenance of the proposed replacement and additional stone curlew breeding plots.
The SoS considered that likely significant effects in relation to construction and/or operations could not be ruled out. He therefore considered an AA (Appropriate Assessment) should be undertaken to discharge his obligations under the Habitats Regulations. The AA was published alongside his decision letter.
Following the close of the examination, late representations were made regarding nutrient levels (including phosphates) affecting the River Avon SAC and this has also been considered as part of the AA. Having carried out the AA, the SoS is content that the construction and operation of the development, as proposed, with all the avoidance and mitigation measures secured in the DCO, will have no adverse effect on the integrity of any European Site, either alone or in-combination with other plans or projects