It looks very likely that Rishi Sunak has delivered a genuinely historic budget — one that will still be remembered and execrated in a thousand years time. Its infamy will owe nothing to the impact it may have had on preparations for Brexit, or the coronavirus crisis, or Tory electoral prospects, ephemeral concerns that will have been long forgotten by 3020, but on a landscape that has always depended for its proper context on the sweep of millennia.
“Delighted with the news the A303 will finally get its upgrade to ease the traffic at Stonehenge,” the Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, tweeted yesterday. “It will restore one of the most important landscapes in England.” So a man who in his maiden speech in the Commons declared that love of country begins with love of neighbourhood greeted the Chancellor’s backing for a scheme that constitutes the most grotesque act of desecration ever contemplated by a British government: the driving of a great gash of concrete and tarmac through our most significant, our most sacred prehistoric landscape.
The Stonehenge Alliance, the campaigning group of which I have the honour to be president, is not blind to the demands of those who use the A303. There are good reasons rooted in issues of accountancy as well as of conservation to oppose the Stonehenge Tunnel.
We believe — as the National Audit Office believes — that the scheme does not offer value for money; we believe — as the TaxPayers’ Alliance believes — that the money could be better spent on transport improvements in the South West “which would be of greater benefit to commuters across the region”. We believe — as Andy Rhind-Tutt, President of the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce believes — that, based on Highways England’s own figures, the Stonehenge Tunnel “will save just 4.8 seconds per mile on an average 100 mile journey”.
Concerns that the scheme will be a massive waste of money are not some capitalism-hating plot. The National Audit Office and the TaxPayers’ Alliance are nobody’s idea of Greta Thunberg. But they agree that 14,000 years after the last mammoth vanished from Britain, a massive white elephant is being allowed to lumber towards Salisbury Plain.
Simultaneously, I very much agree with the point made so eloquently by Danny Kruger in his maiden speech as an MP: money is not everything. Even if the current plan for a tunnel made perfect economic sense, and the balance sheet was not inked over in red, the case against it would still be overwhelming. Time can be measured in seconds, and it can be measured in millennia. Nowhere else in Britain do the demands of the present and the claims of the past rub up against each other more insistently than amidst the Stonehenge landscape.
The 4.8 seconds saved on an average car journey need to be measured against reaches of time so profound that they shade into the sacred. Stonehenge — the “stone gallows”, as the Anglo-Saxons called it — has embodied the mystery and the menace of the past for as long as people have been speaking English on this island. Already, in the 7th century, the construction of the circle was further removed in time from the burial of a decapitated man there than that decapitated man is from us. Stonehenge itself, in turn, is only part of an even older landscape.
At Blick Mead, animal bones have been found that date as far back as 7500 BC. In the words of David Jacques, leader of the excavations at the site: “For years, people have been asking, ‘Why is Stonehenge where it is?’ Now at last we may have found the answers.”
Distracting though the distant roar of traffic may be to Stonehenge visitors, it will be more distracting still to know that we, as a generation, had the opportunity to trace the site’s evolution and to solve many of its mysteries, yet wantonly squandered it. Today, we know that Stonehenge did not exist in isolation. That is precisely why UNESCO made sure to designate the landscape that surrounds it a World Heritage Site.
The projected tunnel, it is true, will enable visitors to admire the stones without the distraction of traffic on the A303 behind them; but the object of their admiration will be the equivalent of an otherwise extinct creature in a zoo. The landscape that provides Stonehenge with its context, and which is currently enabling archaeologists to trace the ultimate origins of the monument back almost to the original arrival of humans in Britain, will have been devastated. Four-line highways, slip-roads and tunnel portals will have desecrated it for all time.
The chance to shed a better light on the very beginnings of continuous human settlement in our country will have been lost forever. We will have raised a monument to our own shortsightedness and folly that will cause future ages to shake their heads in disbelief.
It is still not too late to stop this monstrous project. The Chancellor’s statement reaffirmed a long-term commitment to build the Stonehenge Tunnel, but did not give it the final go-ahead. The scheme itself remains subject to a legal planning process that is yet to report. The small print of the Government’s own policy paper on road investment includes the Stonehenge Tunnel in a list of schemes that it has pledged to fund only “where they remain value for money”.
This — since Highways England, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are all agreed that the Stonehenge Tunnel is not remotely good value for money — constitutes a definite hostage to fortune. The Stonehenge Alliance continues the fight; the field is not yet lost.
It is for that reason, in the week after Easter, that I and my brother will be staging a protest march from the south coast of Sussex along ancient prehistoric byways to Stonehenge itself. Our most precious prehistoric landscape remains — for now — undesecrated. We all have a responsibility to ensure that it will still be undesecrated in a thousand years time.