A controversial £1.7 billion plan to dig a road tunnel near Stonehenge has been given the go-ahead by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
The decision, announced by Transport Minister Andrew Stephenson, goes against the recommendations of planning officials, who warned it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the World Heritage Site.
The A303, which is a popular route for motorists travelling to and from the South West, is often severely congested on the single carriageway stretch near the stones in Wiltshire.
Highways England says its plan for a two-mile tunnel will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site and cut journey times.
But some environmentalists and archaeologists have voiced their opposition to the plan due to its potential impact on the area.
The project is classified as nationally significant, which means a Development Consent Order is needed for it to go ahead.
The Planning Inspectorate – an executive agency of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – recommended the Transport Secretary withhold consent because the project would substantially and permanently harm the integrity and authenticity of the World Heritage Site, which includes the stone circle and the wider archaeology-rich landscape.
In a report to Mr Shapps, the officials said permanent, irreversible harm, critical to the outstanding universal value of the site, or why it is internationally important, would occur, “affecting not only our own, but future generations”.
The Department for Transport wrote to Highways England stating that: “The Secretary of State is satisfied that, on balance, the need case for the development together with the other benefits identified outweigh any harm.”
There is now a six-week period in which the decision can be challenged in the High Court.
The tunnel is part of a £1.7 billion investment in the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down.
Historian, author and broadcaster Tom Holland, who is president of the Stonehenge Alliance, said it was “shocking and shameful” to give the project the green light.
He told the PA news agency: “The decision to inject a great gash of tarmac and concrete into Britain’s most precious prehistoric landscape is one that ranks simultaneously as spendthrift and sacrilegious.
“We shall continue to oppose it as vigorously as we can.”
Greenpeace UK head of transport Richard George said: “This new road tunnel will be a disaster for England’s heritage and the world’s climate.
“If the Government is serious about a green recovery from the pandemic it should be investing in public transport, but instead we’re getting more traffic and more pollution.”
Highways England project director Derek Parody said it is collaborating with heritage groups such as English Heritage, National Trust and Historic England to ensure the scheme will “conserve and enhance” the World Heritage Site.
Preparatory work is due to begin in spring next year, with the five-year construction phase expected to start by 2023.
This means the tunnel is likely to open one year later than initially planned.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in March that funding is in place for the project, which is part of a £1.7 billion upgrade of the A303.
Public-private funding was due to be used to finance the work, but in October 2018 then-chancellor Philip Hammond cancelled future deals using that model.