Judge rejects challenge to £1.7bn Stonehenge Tunnel

The High Court has thrown out a case brought by campaigners against the £1.7bn Stonehenge Tunnel project.

Mr Justice Holgate said most of the allegations brought by Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS), which was seeking a judicial review of the project’s development consent order, were “unarguable”.

The decision means the project can now continue without a judicial review, with archaeology work at the site set to start later this year ahead of main construction work in 2025.

One allegation relating to the Department for Transport’s (DfT) environmental impact assessment will be considered again by the courts, but Construction News understands that this final consideration will not affect whether the project can proceed.

The judgement marks the latest stage in a long-running legal saga involving the tunnel project.

The DfT initially greenlighted the project in November 2020, but the High Court quashed that decision in July 2021. The government then resubmitted a proposal that obtained development consent from transport minister Mark Harper last July.

Plans for the A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down scheme would see a 3.2km tunnel built under the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and 12.8km of dual carriageway between Amesbury and Berwick Down.

In the latest judgement, Justice Holgate found there was “no basis” behind SSWHS’s attempt to get a judicial review.

The campaign group argued its case on seven separate grounds, including that the transport secretary did not consider other “non-expressway options”, such as rail, instead of the tunnel.

It also alleged Harper acted “irrationally” by failing to consider the risk of Stonehenge being delisted as a world heritage site and said he failed to consider how the project would affect government commitments to reach net zero by 2050.

The judge ruled that the claim that the government did not consider rail alternatives to the tunnel was “hopeless” as the “policy objective” was to provide a route for motor vehicles specifically.

“A decision-maker is not legally obliged to treat as an alternative to a proposed scheme a suggestion which does not meet relevant policy objectives,” he said.

He also referred to the government’s statement that the tunnel “would not lead to the UK being in breach of its World Heritage Convention […] obligations”, after it consulted more detailed designs.

Holgate also found the government had followed its protocol in considering the scheme’s carbon emissions against its full carbon budget, pointing out that the government had committed to work with advisory bodies to meet its carbon targets while the tunnel project is being built.

The court will, however, look at the DfT’s approach to the environmental impact assessment at a later stage. It comes after National Highways won a stay relating to the campaigners’ argument on this point in November.

SSWHS director John Adams said in a statement that the judgment was a “huge blow and exposes the site to National Highway’s state-sponsored vandalism”. But he resolved to “continue the fight”. SSWHS said it intended to appeal the decision.

Construction News understands preliminary work and archaeology fieldwork at the Stonehenge Tunnel site could begin as early as this spring. That work could take up to a year, before construction work starts in 2025.

David Bullock, project director for the A303 Stonehenge scheme at National Highways, said: “We welcome the High Court’s decision and wait for conclusion of the legal proceedings. It is a positive step forward and would mean that at long last we can progress solving the issues of the A303 near Stonehenge.

“It represents decades of working with our stakeholders, heritage bodies and local communities to create the best possible solution,” he added.

The DfT declined to comment.

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