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A303 Stonehenge bypass DCO quashed

Words: Laura Edgar

The High Court has quashed the development consent order (DCO) for the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down in Wiltshire past the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps granted the DCO for the Highways England project, which sought to address congestion on the route between the south-east and south-west, in November 2020 –   against the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate.

It advised withholding consent, warning that it would cause “permanent irreversible harm” and the benefits to the ‘outstanding universal value’ (OUV) “would not be capable of offsetting this harm”. The inspectorate suggested a number of modifications if the secretary of state chose to grant the DCO.

Shapps, however, decided that “any harm to heritage assets, including the OUV [outstanding universal value], is less than substantial and this harm (while carrying great weight), along with the other harms identified, are outweighed by the benefits of the development”.

Shortly after the decision was issued, campaign group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) asked Leigh Day solicitors to investigate the lawfulness of the decision, having crowdfunded £50,000 to bring a judicial review at the High Court.

Mr Justice Holgate noted that the judgment could only consider the lawfulness of the transport secretary’s decision, therefore the judgement should not be treated as either approving or disapproving of the project.

Holgate found there to be a “material error of law” in considering the impact on Stonehenge as a whole rather than assessing the impact on individual assets. The judgment states that the court was not shown anything in the decision letter that “could be said to summarise such matters”.

“In these circumstances, the [secretary of state] was not given legally sufficient material to be able lawfully to carry out the ‘heritage’ balancing exercise required by paragraph 5.134 of the [National Policy Statement for National Networks] and the overall balancing exercise required by s.104 of the Planning Act 2008. In those balancing exercises the [secretary of state] was obliged to take into account the impacts on the significance of all designated heritage assets affected so that they were weighed, without, of course, having to give reasons which went through all of them one by one.”

Holgate upheld this challenge.

Another challenge submitted by SSWHS was that the secretary of state failed to consider mandatory considerations, including the existence of at least one alternative.

Holgate concluded that the secretary of state was legally obliged to consider the merits of the alternatives to the proposed western cutting, such as the provision of a cut-and-cover section to the west of the proposed bored tunnel or an extension of that bored tunnel to the west so that its portals would be located outside the World Heritage Site. Both these options were estimated to increase project costs.

These two decisions mean that the DCO has been quashed. Redetermination of the application is a matter for the secretary of state.

John Adams, OBE, SSWHS director and acting chairman of the Stonehenge Alliance, said that “now that we are facing a climate emergency, it is all the more important that this ruling should be a wake-up call for the government”.

“It should look again at its roads programme and take action to reduce road traffic and eliminate any need to build new and wider roads that threaten the environment as well as our cultural heritage.”

The court documents can be found here.

Read more:

Development consent granted for A303 Stonehenge bypass

Stonehenge DCO approval could face legal action

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