Stonehenge: Proposed Road Alterations 05 June 2018
UK Parliament Westminster Hall Debate
Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposed road alterations around Stonehenge.
Sir Graham Brady (in the Chair)
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to make a speech at this point, if he wishes to do so.
Thank you very much, Sir Graham; it is a pleasure to serve under your careful and kind direction.
I know that it is slightly unusual for an MP from Essex to call a debate on improvements to a road that is not in Essex; indeed, the A303 does not run through Essex and Stonehenge is not within Essex. So I apologise to Members who represent constituencies in the area around Stonehenge that are affected by this road and I also apologise to the Minister, because I know that there is a due process under way that the Government must religiously and necessarily stick to, and that there is a limit on what he can say in the debate today.
However, I also know that at the end of that process it is Ministers who will have the final say on whether this project goes ahead. Consequently, I would like to put a few things on the record now, to ensure that the Minister has heard the concerns that have been raised with me by the archaeological community, who have themselves made submissions to the appropriate consultation.
We find ourselves in the position of having a world heritage site on a rather awkward transport route in Wiltshire. The need to improve the transport network is running up against that of preserving the site, known as Stonehenge, making the debate necessary. My personal interest stems from the fact that for a long time I was a teacher and lecturer in history, admittedly medieval history. I began my studies at about 500 AD—[Interruption.] Even by my own standards, that makes my period modern rubbish, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) so kindly puts it.
I grew up in the locality of the site and have spent a great many happy hours within its confines, viewing the stones at sunset and sunrise and taking great pleasure in seeing them in their natural setting. The proposals do not affect the stones themselves. The extraordinary craftwork that is at least 4,000 years old has given us so much insight into the Neolithic period in which the stones were built. A few years ago, the eminent archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson revealed that underneath the perimeter stones were the cremated remains of inhabitants of Britain, dating from about 3,000 BC. Those remains have been analysed and shown to be of people who grew up in many disparate parts of our island. That is to say that even 4,000 years ago, Stonehenge was a meeting place and in some senses a sacred site, where people brought their ailing, or brought their dead to be interred. We all know about the extraordinary bluestones that appear to have been brought from mountains in Wales, as perhaps either an offering or a spoil of war, and which are among the most striking and iconic elements of the assemblage.
The world heritage site itself is considerably larger than the stones. As it was set out in 1986, it covers a wide area, ranging from the long barrows in the west to the Countess roundabout in the east. Some road change plans for within the periphery of the stones are now being consulted on, and I will briefly talk about what we are dealing with.
In the west, we have an extraordinary collection of Neolithic long barrows, and this grouping in a small area is unique in the world. There are eight early Neolithic long barrows across this part of the western valley, where a new cutting for the road is proposed. The grouping is not just unusual; it is entirely of its own. To the east, we find a remarkably precious patch of boggy ground called Blick Mead, the full significance of which has only recently been revealed: a monograph published earlier this year lights on excavations over the past decade.
In its wet environment, Blick Mead keeps organic matter in a deoxygenated state, meaning that the matter does not rot. That creates the most extraordinary catalogue of human activity, going back not just to 3,000 BC when the stones were erected, but to 4,000 years before that, to our Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. That is to say that the Stonehenge stones are the mid-point of activity between now and the earliest phases of known occupation on the site. I was once told that the lifetime of Cleopatra was closer to the modern day than to the building of the great pyramid at Giza, and this is almost exactly the equivalent—4,000 years back to the stones of Stonehenge and 4,000 years further back to the beginning of Blick Mead. We are only skimming the surface at the moment, but the catalogue enables us to trace the extraordinary transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled farming one. It is wholly extraordinary to find any such site anywhere in northern Europe. The site is completely remarkable and must, whatever plans go forward, be preserved. We must seek not to damage it but to protect it. I am sure that there are many ways of doing that, but it must be done.
In the words of the great rock band, Spinal Tap:
“Stonehenge! Tis a magic place”
“No one knows who they were or what they were doing”.
Blick Mead will enable us to answer the important questions raised by Spinal Tap.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way to the chair of the all-party parliamentary archaeology group.
I apologise for arriving slightly after the beginning of the debate, which started early, uncharacteristically for my hon. Friend. Notwithstanding the archaeological academic prowess of Spinal Tap, I go back to his point about the extraordinary and unique concentration of barrows at the western end of the site. He referred to eight. Does he acknowledge that two new long barrows were discovered as recently as 2016-17, during surveying work for the potential new road? That is just those that we know about. The archaeology that could be destroyed if the scheme were to go ahead could be even more considerable than he has outlined so far.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and will turn in a moment to what we do not yet know about Stonehenge.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)
My hon. Friend should not be at all sorry that he does not come from Wiltshire. Those of us who do are very grateful to him for taking the interest that he has. Does he appreciate that the sensitivity of the matter is demonstrated by the fact that we are going to the extraordinary expense of constructing a tunnel past the stones, which will undermine, so to speak, archaeology that may be explored in the future? That cost should not be underestimated, as logic would dictate that we did a cut and cover, at the very most, or simply had a dual carriageway. Instead, we have gone for a tunnel, which will leave the great bulk of the archaeology that may as yet be undiscovered uninterrupted and undisturbed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. There is no doubt that a tunnel under part of the site will protect that very part. Notwithstanding the concerns that have been raised about toxic gases that could be released by tunnelling through chalk—not something I am fit to comment on—I believe that part of the site will be preserved by digging deep down for a tunnel. However, regarding the tunnels, the widening of roads into dual carriageways and particularly the flyover on the eastern end of the site, I seek reassurance that at the very least we are doing everything in our power to ensure that we do not damage this precious environment and that, if we find we are doing so, we take other steps.
I wish to make three points in connection with the issues I have raised. The first is about the academic, archaeological response that has been made to the consultation, which it is only right to put on record. The second is the response of UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites to the proposals as they stand. The third is about the relationship we have with world heritage sites and how we might seek to develop that relationship in the future.
James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
I, too, am a medieval historian, so I welcome my hon. Friend’s presence. I welcome the interest he has shown and some of the fascinating things he is saying about the stones. As well as considering those three reports, will he also consider the interests of the people of Wiltshire, Somerset and neighbouring areas who have for many years spent large parts of their time in a traffic jam alongside the stones? It has become entirely intolerable. Will he also consider the question of the way in which the stones are ruined by the presence of vast quantities of traffic above ground? Although we have, of course, listened to what he has to say about archaeology, surely we have to find a way of easing the traffic for local people and improving the environment of the stones.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am one of those people who have sat on the A303 on a hot summer’s day in stationary traffic with an agitated child in the back and a wife looking at me as though to say, “We should have taken a different route.” The last time I went on the A303 in summer, we were in stationary traffic for two hours because the President of the United States had decided he would visit Stonehenge that day. The security forces of the United Kingdom and the USA had bilaterally decided to stop everything going east and west without telling us what was going on. I fully acknowledge that there is a traffic problem on the A303 and that local residents have a right to ask for that problem to be solved. I am an Essex MP; I do not wish to go into alternative routes. I am seeking assurances from the Government that, whatever decision is made about where the road does or does not go, we have foremost in our minds a determination to preserve this completely unique environment.
First, I turn to the comments made by the group of 22 experts who have worked at Stonehenge over the past 10 years. They have raised particular concerns that the
“creation of new sections of dual carriageway and slip roads at each end of the tunnel, within the boundary of the WHS, would set a dangerous precedent by allowing large-scale destructive development within a WHS”.
I will turn to that point again in a moment. They also said:
“The construction of the portal at the west end…and new sections of road in its vicinity, would damage an area with an unusual and nationally important concentration of long barrows”
belonging to the millennium prior to Stonehenge. They said:
“The proposed new road would cut across the site of a settlement from the time of Stonehenge’s construction, perhaps where the builders of its Bronze-Age phase once lived…At the tunnel’s eastern end, construction of its portal may affect groundwater conditions which could harm nationally important Mesolithic remains at the site of Blick Mead.”
The 22 archaeologists are employed by UK universities. Many were employees of various universities or English Heritage when doing research at Stonehenge. Seven of them are members of the A303 Scientific Committee at Stonehenge. It is a very good thing, which was set up to ensure that the process gets good advice on limiting the damage of the current proposals. However, its remit does not extend to looking beyond that; those are the terms of engagement. Seven members of the scientific committee were sufficiently concerned to make their own submission to the consultation.
I do not know the best way of doing this, as I do not wish to read out all 22 names, but I hope they can be in some way included in the Official Report. [Interruption.] I am being told to read them into the record. They are: Professor Mike Parker Pearson, University College London; Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield; Dr Mike Allen, Allen Environmental Associates; Dr Barry Bishop, University of Buckingham; Professor Nick Branch, University of Reading; Dr Christopher Chippindale, University of Cambridge; Professor Oliver Craig, University of York; Dr David Field, formerly of English Heritage; Professor Charly French, University of Cambridge; Professor Vince Gaffney, University of Bradford; Paul Garwood, University of Birmingham; Professor David Jacques, University of Buckingham; Dr Nicholas James, University of Cambridge; Dr Joshua Pollard, University of Southampton; Professor Colin Richards, University of the Highlands and Islands; Dr David Robinson, University of Central Lancashire; Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy, University of Durham; Professor Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester; Dr Colin Shell, University of Cambridge; Professor Julian Thomas, University of Manchester; Professor Christopher Tilley, University College London; and Professor Kate Welham, University of Bournemouth.
They have concerns, and further concerns have been raised by a different body that worked on the Blick Mead archaeological site in the east. The principal concern there is about the water table, since the deoxygenated environment, as I have explained, is extremely helpful in preserving organic matter from a long time ago. They are concerned about two aspects of the proposed route: that the extension of dual carriageway could create additional weight on the road, squeezing water out of the site; and that the weight of the flyover could squeeze the soil down, again pushing water out.
Such concerns are understandable from a professional viewpoint, given that in 2000, an extraordinarily important Mesolithic site in North Yorkshire called Star Carr was damaged when drainage ditches—which, I believe, had been approved by heritage organisations—were cut through. That has caused irreparable damage to a truly remarkable site. For the record, the academic paper charting what happened at Star Carr can be found in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, November 2017, “Lessons from Star Carr on the vulnerability of organic archaeological remains to environmental change”. Within a short period from the changes being made to the Star Carr environment, irreparable and irreversible damage was done to its archaeology.
I was pleased to see in chapter 11 of the Highways England preliminary environmental information report that the potential impacts of the construction of the scheme at the eastern end—over the Countess roundabout—were being looked at. Some opportunities to avoid or mitigate the impacts by influencing the design of the proposed scheme were noted. However, from the information given in that document, it is very difficult to see exactly how Highways England has reached its conclusions. There is no account of what it envisages the weight of the road being, or the weight of the flyover. It is very difficult—indeed, impossible—to tell what minimisation looks like in this context. Does minimisation mean an absolutely negligible impact? I sincerely hope so. Either way, we deserve to have that information, so that we can ascertain whether the conclusion that the
“proposed scheme would have no likely significant permanent adverse effects”
is true, and if so, the extent to which it is true.
My hon. Friend is being very generous. Would he acknowledge that there is a clear and present danger, not only to people who live and breathe in villages such as Chitterne, with the rat-running that currently goes on, and Chicklade, which sits along the route of the A303 and is blighted by that road at the moment—their lives are being adversely impacted by the A303—but to the built environment, which is also being adversely impacted? We need to do something about that. The proposals for Stonehenge would go some way towards improving those settings, the lives of those who live there and the built environment in the sorts of villages I have described.
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) a moment ago, I fully understand the need for some form of road improvement in the area. All I am asking for is an assurance that we are doing everything in our power to protect the archaeological environment.
I am so sorry to interrupt once again. It really is the most interesting speech, and we are learning a great deal. My hon. Friend says in passing that some form of road improvement might be necessary. That matter has concerned the road traffic authorities and the people of Wiltshire for two or three generations. It goes right back to the first world war—that was the first time people started talking about what we were going to do about Stonehenge. Therefore, simply to say, “Oh, I’m very worried about the archaeology, and if we can’t save it we must find some other way of doing it,” is not enough. If he does not like the flyover at the Countess roundabout, what else does he propose?
I think I made it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) that I am not a road engineer. I am a simple Member of Parliament with a historical and archaeological bent. The experts should find a means of answering such questions. It may be, for all I know, that they have already done so, but from the information that I have seen and that has been made available to the public, my concerns have not been allayed. Clearly, the archaeological community and international community have not had their concerns allayed either.
UNESCO and its sister group in the UK, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, have said on a number of occasions that the current proposals are not what they would wish. To quote UNESCO from earlier this year, the project is
“not adequate to protect the authenticity, integrity and Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property.”
In April of this year, ICOMOS said:
“ICOMOS-UK wishes to register a strong objection to these proposals in view of the substantial negative and irreversible impact we believe that the dual carriageways at both ends of the tunnel would have on the attributes of OUV of the WHS of Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites.”
Unless we can allay those fears, there is a danger that the status of the world heritage site will be affected. That would be extremely bad for us all, and is something that I am sure none of us wants, although I acknowledge that local MPs and local constituents will want improvements in the area.
I must put on the record the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is here. As a Minister, he is unable to speak. I am very sorry he is in that position, because I know that he would want to raise a lot of issues on behalf of his constituents.
Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is not just local MPs in Wiltshire who want the dual carriageway to be built, but MPs from across the south-west, particularly in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, where we rely heavily on tourism? The fact that we have only one main trunk road linking us to the rest of the country is a real barrier to the growth of the tourism industry. The establishment of a second dual-carriageway link would be a huge boost to our local economy, and is vital to our economic future.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I was on my way to Cornwall when President Obama so rudely interrupted my holiday, so I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point.
My third and final point is broader. It is about the nature of world heritage sites and us, and it goes beyond what I have been saying about the Stonehenge site. We all know that we are bound by the world heritage convention of 1972—in particular, I am thinking of article 4. As someone who is more of a historian and archaeologist than an expert on travel policy, in looking at the papers I have been struck by the impression that when dealing with road improvements, or indeed any changes, around a world heritage site, the case seems to be back to front. If somebody wants to build a road, a dual carriageway or a motorway through a field, and it is clearly in the public interest to do so, the onus is on others to prove that it should not happen. In the case of a world heritage site, it seems to me that we have already established that the site needs to be preserved and protected. I am sure it is too late to do it in this instance, but in future I would like us to put the question the other way around.
It ought to be incumbent on developers to show that they are not harming the fabric of such a site. I say that for one simple reason. Anyone who has worked in archaeology knows the importance of the Rumsfeldian dictum that there are “unknown unknowns”—one simply does not know what one has not yet found. However, we know that at this site, everywhere we look, every time a new technique is developed, we find something more—something that we did not expect to find, and that tells us something else about our deep and significant past.
We have to think very carefully about our obligation to the past—our obligation to retain extraordinary and unusual things that have been left to us, so that we can pass them on. I hope that there is a way of doing that while satisfying the real concerns of people in the south-west, and in Wiltshire and the surrounding area, about the traffic problems. However, it is important for us to think very hard about protecting a site such as Stonehenge.
Several hon. Members rose—
Sir Graham Brady (in the Chair)
Order. I call Mr James Gray.
James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Thank you, Sir Graham, for calling me. My intention was not to speak in the debate at all, not least because I am the MP for North Wiltshire, which is some 20 or 30 miles away from Stonehenge. My constituency therefore does not face the direct impact that will be suffered by, for example, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). He is, of course, prevented from speaking because of his rank as a Minister. Sadly, that rank has never come my way, although there is plenty of time left. One can never tell—it could be on its way.
I enjoyed immensely listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) introduce the debate. Even having studied Stonehenge for 20 years as an MP, and as a medieval historian for a great deal of time before that, I learned an enormous amount from his speech, and I congratulate him on it. There was a huge amount of interesting information there that I, for one, simply did not know, and he made some incredibly important points.
I think my hon. Friend spoke for the people as a whole, and for everyone who is concerned about the issue. Of course, I suspect that hardly anyone wants to destroy or damage the archaeology around Stonehenge. We all want to do everything that we can to preserve it; there is no question about that. We do not want one blade of grass that is of historic interest to be damaged by the proposal, and of course we must do everything that we can to preserve the site. That is why so many experts have been involved in the project for so many years.
I think my hon. Friend has missed two things. First, we have to do something. He mentioned that he has been down to Cornwall on holiday on a couple of occasions, and was once stuck in traffic thanks to President Obama. From listening to BBC Radio Wiltshire, I can tell hon. Members that the A303 at Stonehenge is chock-a-block, morning, noon and night, seven days a week. It is the most extraordinary piece of traffic congestion in the country. That does not only affect local people and tourists trying to get down to the south-west—I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that it is an important traffic link to the south-west. It affects the stones themselves.
Secondly, of course it is right that a UNESCO world heritage site should be preserved in the way my hon. Friend describes—no one denies that, but I find it hard to imagine that UNESCO could allow a site such as Stonehenge, one of the finest sites in the world, to have a traffic jam through the middle of it. Quite rightly, we decided to close the branch road that goes up towards Devizes. That road was closed because it damaged the site; it went right through the middle of it. Closing that road has actually made the traffic problems worse, but the A303 is within a yard or two of the heel stone. We are talking about the most appalling traffic jam right beside the stones. We may have traffic jams here, outside the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey, but what we see at Stonehenge is significantly worse than that. I cannot imagine why, from a heritage standpoint, anybody could do anything other than welcome the fact that this road is going to be moved. It has to be moved. It is an absolute bunion—a carbuncle, in the words of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. It is an appalling sight and we have to do something about it.
My third point was missing from the speech given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, which was extremely well thought through. Of course we have to preserve the archaeology, but we have to do so in a way that modern people can appreciate, and in such a way that they can live their lives. At the moment, that is not happening.
Something has to happen and people have been considering the matter for generations now. The proposal we have come up with seems to me to be the least bad of the options available to us. Of course, there may be some downsides and a bit of impact from the weight of the flyover and one or two other things, which we will try to make better, but we have got to do something. In reply to an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that that was not a matter for him—he comes from Essex and does not know anything about road engineering. He knows about wetlands and things of that kind, but he does not understand the realities of the place itself. He does not understand the misery that local people and tourists to the west country are currently going through.
In considering my hon. Friend’s very fine and important archaeological points, it is also necessary to consider at the same time how those things can be sustainably maintained—in other words, kept in their pristine condition in a way that allows modern people to live their modern lives.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Of course, I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend from Essex.
Or indeed, Sussex. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that everyone here would agree that the imperative is to make sure that when he inevitably gets his ministerial car, it can speed without any encumbrance across the A303 to his constituency. Will he acknowledge that the Stonehenge UNESCO world heritage site was in place almost 5,000 years before the invention of the internal combustion engine? While we absolutely need to make sure that modern life can be compatible with its preservation, will he acknowledge that the problem with the scheme is that it does not sufficiently take account of the heritage value of the site? The site is not just the stones themselves. It is a much wider area that is of significant archaeological importance, as recognised in the wider UNESCO world heritage site—one of only 31 such sites in this country.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I must correct him on two small points. It shows how little he knows of the geography of the area. If someone were to travel in their ministerial limo from north Wiltshire to London, they would not go anywhere near Stonehenge—they would be some 30 miles away from it. One of the first things he ought to do is to take a glance at a map of Wiltshire and find out exactly what is affected by this proposal.
Secondly, when he says that the UNESCO world heritage site was in place 5,000 years ago, I suspect that UNESCO was not around 5,000 years ago. None the less, that is a small oversight on his part.
Of course, we are all ad idem. We are in agreement. All of us in this room are in agreement on these matters, and it is quite wrong to try to make it into an argument. We are all in agreement. There is no question about. Of course we must do absolutely everything in our power to preserve the archaeology, the heritage, the wildlife and the biodiversity of the area. It is an incredibly important area. We in Wiltshire are more proud of Stonehenge than almost anything else, apart from perhaps Salisbury Cathedral and Malmesbury Abbey—just to throw them in. Of course we must do those things, but we must do them at the same time as allowing modern people to live their lives.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and well thought out speech. Does he agree that we have got to come to a balanced position, where we balance preservation against progress and protecting the past against allowing the future to take place? The one option we cannot allow is doing nothing. Something has to be done, but it has to be done in a balanced way that embraces both sides of the argument.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good summary of my points. He is absolutely right that this must be balanced.
I hope that the Minister will take account of the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar made in his speech. Of course we must take account of every single archaeological detail. We must do what we can to preserve this hugely important site, and we must improve the UNESCO world heritage site by removing the traffic from the middle of it. Of course all those things are true, but we must also find a way of allowing people in Wiltshire and throughout the west country to enjoy their way of life.
I personally believe that the conclusion we have come to with regard to the tunnel and the approaches to it is the least bad of the options available. Nothing is great and there are problems with it, but I think we have taken account of most of the issues as best we can. I very much hope that those who are responsible for these matters will have listened very carefully to the important points made by my hon. Friend, and where improvements can be made, I am certain that they will be, but I would be extremely concerned if those kinds of concerns were to cause the delay or, even worse, the failure of the scheme as a whole.
Sir Graham Brady (in the Chair)
I remind hon. Members that we need to move to the wind-up speeches by 10 past 5. I call Dr Murrison. If you would exercise a little restraint, that would be welcome.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)
I shall be very brief. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), I did not intend to speak in this debate. I will start by declaring an interest. My home and a small piece of land that I own runs down to the A303, although much further west than Stonehenge.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on his speech. He did a great job in trying to steer that middle course between serving the interests of people who live and breathe today and our interest in archaeology, which we hold to be extremely important in Wiltshire. It is very much the repository for archaeology, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who is unfortunately prevented from speaking because of his ministerial position, agrees with me that we must preserve all we possibly can. However, it is important to say that we cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. It would be very foolish for any of us to suggest that archaeology is not going to be disrupted by the proposal for the A303.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) is absolutely right to say that a balance must be struck. In my opinion, the right balance has been struck. The tragedy would be if the project was delayed any more because we were concerned that we should not disrupt any piece of archaeology in this extremely cramped—in archaeological terms—site in Wiltshire. I regret to say that that would be impossible. In the event that it was shelved, my constituents, who live alongside the A303 and who have their lives blighted on a daily basis by this extraordinary road, and those in all the villages roundabout that are used as rat runs when there is congestion on the A303, which is pretty much all the time, would have their lives blighted for years and years to come.
I have my own concerns, which the Minister will know about, about the choreography of some of the work, particularly in relation to the village of Chicklade. I will continue lobbying on behalf of my constituents to make sure that we get the second phase sorted out very quickly indeed. However, none of that should delay this crucial piece of work through Stonehenge. At this particular juncture, I think we need to just crack on with it.
I admire very much the extraordinary account by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar of the history of the site. It seems to me that tunnelling under most of the archaeological remains is the most sensitive way of dealing with that, notwithstanding the poisonous gases to which he referred and of which I have to confess I was not aware. I understand his concerns about either end of this tunnel—particularly the Amesbury end—and I hope very much that we are able to approach the work in as sensitive a way as we possibly can, but it would be foolish for any of us to suppose that some of it will not be disruptive. That, I am afraid, is the price that we pay.
My hon. Friend referred to Stonehenge as a Mesolithic destination. Stonehenge was sited there for a reason: it was because it was accessible by tracks and by river. That is part of the reason Stonehenge is where it is. I think we sometimes have to give a little respect to the much-maligned A303; the part it has played in our history is sometimes understated and underestimated. It is important and is part of the overall Stonehenge story.
Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for opening the debate in such a fascinating way and drawing us into so much of the history, which he clearly has such a passion for. His sharing that was a privilege for all of us. He was absolutely right to remind us of the importance of our past and the still undiscovered past, which we will learn so much about. That is why today’s debate is so important and timely, given the proposals, as an opportunity to reflect once more on how to preserve our heritage to ensure we still have the opportunity to dig into our past—literally—and understand our history.
This is also about our future—hon. Members made that point well. The air quality along the A303 has an impact not only on the site itself but on the residents living in the area. Air quality is a real challenge in many areas of our country. Road users are among those who experience the worst air quality. It causes 40,000 premature deaths in our country every year, so we urgently need more action on that front.
I recognise the importance of the site—I remember going there as a child, back in the days when people could run around the stones—but this is not just about the stones. The point was made eloquently this afternoon that the whole of the site is significant—not just its aspect, but its richness and depth. It is important that the proposals preserve the site, because once it is damaged we cannot get it back. We really need to reflect on those considerations.
Several communities use the space. The local community, which uses it for commuting and obviously lives along the site, needs to find a resolution too. It is important that Wiltshire County Council looks at how to prevent rat runs, which hon. Members mentioned, and ensures that villages are not disturbed by traffic charging through them. There is more it can do to step up in that area.
Then there is the tourist traffic. I understand that about 1.58 million people go to visit Stonehenge every single year, which is of huge significance. We therefore need to understand how best to accommodate tourists. They do not have to park right next to the stones, and obviously there have been developments over time to pull that traffic further back. We need to think about how tourists approach the area and about whether we can do more to reduce the traffic using the area for that purpose. The Minister knows I am a keen advocate of modal shift. I have looked at the maps, and it is very doable on a bicycle—he and I are both cyclists. We must find alternative ways for people to reach the site and take that journey into Stonehenge. That is really important for the future.
There is also the east-west traffic, which moves down into the south-west. We want to see a significant modal shift in that area, so we have to think creatively. There are real opportunities: proposals are being put forward for peninsula rail—there is an aspiration for it to reach the south-west with Great Western. There are opportunities for a modal shift in the regular commute of those who use the road. We need to look at how to draw traffic off the road. One thing we know about road-building expansion is that it can lead to induced demand. Major expressways can suck traffic off other routes and leave us facing similar challenges.
I am listening very carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying, but can she clarify whether the Labour party supports the development of this new road and the solution of the tunnel under Stonehenge? It is important that those of us in the south-west understand what the Labour party’s position is.
I will get to that point shortly. I want to talk about the other opportunities we must explore to ensure a modal shift. That is at the heart of the Labour party’s transport policy: we do not believe the future should be taken as it is now. We need to get people on to public transport, whether for leisure or business.
Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con)
I accept the hon. Lady’s point about modal shift, but people will be going on holiday to Cornwall and Devon in the next six weeks, and our population is likely to double. At the moment, they are stuck going down the M5 and the M4. Any alterations to the A303 will make a huge difference to the people coming to visit Devon and Cornwall, so I would really like to know what the Labour party’s position is.
As I said, I will come to that point shortly. In York, we get 7 million visitors a year, so I understand the challenges that the hon. Gentleman faces. We believe the Government can do far more on modal shift. Obviously, there has been a bit of a crisis in rail in the past week or so, but we know that rail is a significant player in moving people around our country. We want public transport to be the mode of choice for the future. That will have a significant impact on people travelling by car. That is at the heart of our policy.
The Government’s proposal is a compromise. They are trying to do something to move traffic away from the current road location and take it through a tunnel, but it is a compromise and there are risks to their strategy. We recognise that there is a compromise on the resources. The question is not about the tunnel itself but about its length and the impact that cutting the throughways will have on either end of the tunnel. I learned a lot about water tables from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar this afternoon. I did not realise the effect they can have on the moisture of the land. I will certainly go back and have a look at that issue. The Government need to look again at where the tunnel is cut and where it is placed. My response to the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) is that that point needs to be reviewed. We understand the significance of the site, and cutting the western end of the tunnel could have a significant impact on the long barrows, which we have heard about this afternoon.
Just to clarify, is the hon. Lady saying that the Labour party does not support the current plans and would not support the development of this road?
I am saying that we believe there are other alternatives, which would be far more significant in reaching the right balance, which the hon. Gentleman talked about earlier. We certainly do not believe that the solution that is on the table at the moment is the only one that needs to be looked at. There are opportunities to get this right for everybody.
Serious concerns and objections have been raised about the proposal, not least by the archaeological community. We note that English Heritage and the National Trust support it, but English Heritage also supported making a change of real heritage significance in my constituency, and it was only prevented by pressure from the community. We wanted the right solutions to be put in place. Our focus must be on getting this right for the future.
We must also scrutinise the Government’s decisions. In Transport questions just before the recess, I talked about ancient woodlands, and the Minister said that many ancient woodlands were planted only a couple of decades ago. The way he dismissed something that is important to the community of Arundel on the A27 puts doubt in my mind about whether proper work has been done on the detail, and about whether we have reached the ultimate conclusion. We clearly have concerns about the impact of the proposals on the archaeology. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reflections. I hope he will give us all confidence that everything is being done to ensure that the wider Stonehenge site is preserved.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jesse Norman)
May I say on behalf of us all, Sir Graham, how brilliantly you have chaired today’s proceedings with your normal aplomb and energy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution. I was interested to learn that in his previous lives he has frolicked around the stones—I am sure not defacing but enjoying them, and I hope not breathing too close to the road—celebrating his druidical background. As such an erudite and scholarly man, he is a great adornment to the Commons. He has brought that bookish sentiment to this debate. If I may mis-quote John Osborne, with the current Member, there is no “book lack in Ongar”. I will allow the Chamber to enjoy that.
My hon. Friend quoted those famous experts in the area, Spın̈al Tap. It would be wrong of me not to remind him of this important moment in the lyrics of “Stonehenge”, as he will recall from the film:
“Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan.”
Unfortunately, as matters stand, the children will not be able to dance, because they will probably get run over, and in any case they would not be able to hear the pipes because of the noise of a road travelling so close to the ancient ruins.
To engage with the point made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), I thought her phrase the “undiscovered past” was a brilliant one and perfectly captured the proper concern that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar framed. She was right to draw attention to air quality and the community-use aspects of the site. Her joy in cycling, I am pleased to say, will be enabled and furthered by the greenways planned as part of the renewal of the site, alongside the removal of the A303. I must, however, put it on the record that I am very surprised and, frankly, sorry that the Labour party’s position is not to support the project. [Interruption.] I invite the hon. Lady to correct me. If the Labour party is ready to support the project, she is absolutely welcome to intervene and say that it will.
I have made it very clear that we need to ensure that we have done absolutely everything possible to preserve the site. As I said, I was looking forward to the Minister’s speech to convince me that that is the case.
I am grateful for that clarification—if it was one—so let me say this. If the hon. Lady wishes to intervenes before I finish to say that I have given her such assurances, that will reassure the many people in Exeter and Plymouth who might be worried about whether the Labour party supports the project.
Let me frame the proposals in their wider context. As hon. Members know, the A303 is the most direct strategic route between the south-west and the south-east and indeed the east of England. That makes it a vital arterial corridor, as has been noted throughout the Chamber during this debate. Several sections of the road, however, are single carriageway, causing congestion, delays and greater risk of accidents.
Would it were the case that only a visit from a serving President of the United States of America was required to interrupt the traffic and cause congestion. Tragically, as has been pointed out, congestion is absolutely an everyday feature—I visited the stones recently and sat in a traffic jam. The experience is a rotten one for all involved, awful for the site and not good for the stones themselves. Those points are sometimes forgotten.
One of the congestion points is precisely at Stonehenge. The distance of the road from the stones when it passes near them is 165 metres, or less than 200 yards, which is an astonishing fact. The sight, smells and sound of stationary traffic are brought directly into the centre of a unique prehistoric environment. That is bad for road users and local communities, while a world heritage site is cut in half and the setting of that iconic landmark is harmed. After many delays and many years of prevarication, therefore, the Government have decided that we need to take the chance to enhance the setting of such an extraordinary monument and to improve access to the surrounding landscape, while opening the south-west for further tourism and other business.
In the 2014 road investment strategy, the Government committed to a scheme at Stonehenge, and we are following through on that. The project is part of a longer-term strategy to create better links between the M3 in the south-east and the M5 in the south-west by upgrading the entire A303-A358 corridor to dual-carriageway A-road standard, thereby transforming it into a continuous high-quality route to the south-west, with significant benefits for tourism, jobs and the economy. As the House knows, we have already committed funding to three schemes: Stonehenge; the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch; and Taunton to the Southfields roundabout. The hope is to commit to the full upgrade of five other sections of road along that corridor in ensuing investment strategies.
The A303 and the Stonehenge site suffer significant congestion because of additional traffic. Given how little time I have remaining—I think only two minutes—I shall cut straight to some of the key points. The proposed road alterations include a twin-bore tunnel of at least 1.8 miles in length and other features mentioned today, such as the Longbarrow and Countess junctions. Both the Department for Transport and Highways England very much appreciate that the world heritage site contains an abundance of early prehistoric monuments. They are committed to minimising the impacts of the planned scheme. The heritage monitoring and advisory group, which includes a range of prestigious organisations, provides advice to ensure that heritage is at the fore of scheme design decisions, advising on archaeological surveys and the like. The scientific committee has directly influenced the scope of the archaeological evaluation strategy adopted for the scheme.
On Blick Mead, Highways England is carrying out an extensive heritage impact assessment to ensure that the scheme does not create unacceptable effects for important heritage features. It must be pointed out that Blick Mead is a full half-mile from the proposed entrance to the tunnel. The proposed use of a tunnel-boring machine means that the tunnel will be constructed in a sealed and watertight environment. There are a range of other mitigations and a great deal of work being done on the water table and the hydrology, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar knows. The Star Carr site is in many ways not a relevant comparison, although it may serve as a warning, precisely because it was the victim of ill-thought-through land drains and acidification of the site, which I am afraid reduce its value as a comparator.
To round up, there will always be trade-offs of incommensurables of the kind that we have seen—between the history and value of a site, the economic, community and air-quality benefits to be had from it, and the like. The nature of politics is that we have to make such trade-offs, but only of course with the most careful expert advice and scrutiny, for the minimisation of the impacts, as we have discussed. In this case, we must be philosophers in practice. I would like to think that the Government have done everything that they can to strike the right balance along the lines that I have described.
I thank the Minister for his comments, and I thank all my colleagues for coming and defending the interests of their constituents. I hope that I made my point in defending the interests of the archaeological community, and that the Minister and all the interested parties do everything they can to ensure that the inherent value of the archaeology of the Stonehenge world heritage site remains at the forefront of all our minds.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proposed road alterations around Stonehenge.
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