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Stonehenge DCO approval could face legal action

Words: Laura Edgar
Stonehenge World Heritage Site / Shutterstock_1387922027

The lawfulness of the decision by transport secretary Grant Shapps to grant a development consent order (DCO) for a dual carriageway for the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down in Wiltshire past Stonehenge World Heritage Site is to be investigated.

Campaign group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) has asked Leigh Day solicitors to undertake the investigation. The firm will work with Victoria Hutton from 39 Essex chambers and David Wolfe QC from Matrix chambers.

The protest group has been set up by individuals involved with The Stonehenge Alliance. It has launched a fundraising campaign to pay for the legal action.

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith commented: “Our client believes that there is a legal case to be made that the secretary of state unlawfully assessed the harm that is going to be inflicted on a 4,000-year-old and much-cherished World Heritage Site, deciding instead that such destruction is a price worth paying for the economic benefits and faster road travel times that may accrue in the future.”

The key elements of the DCO are a northern bypass of Winterbourne Stoke with a viaduct over the River Till valley and a new junction between A303 and A360 to the west of and outside the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, replacing the existing Longbarrow roundabout. Also, a tunnel of about two miles (3.3km) long would be delivered past Stonehenge, plus a new junction between the A3030 and A345 at the existing Countess roundabout.

Shapps’s decision goes against the advice of the Planning Inspectorate, which warned that the development would cause “permanent irreversible harm” and the benefits to the OUV (outstanding universal value) “would not be capable of offsetting this harm”.

In his decision letter, Shapps noted that “any harm to heritage assets, including the OUV, is less than substantial and this harm (whilst carrying great weight), along with the other harms identified, are outweighed by the benefits of the development”.

In a statement on its website, Leigh Day said it has sent a letter to Shapps, putting him on notice about potential legal action. The department will be asked to respond within 10 days.

Any judicial review would need to be put in train by 24 December.

The public inquiry saw the Stonehenge Alliance, alongside a number of other parties, argue that the World Heritage Site should be treated as a single heritage asset and protected in its entirety.

Now, in its it letter, SSWHS asserts that Shapps’s approach to the consideration of harm to heritage was unlawful, the reasons for his conclusion on heritage harm were inadequate and unintelligible, and that his actions breach the World Heritage Convention (WHC).

The group highlights that the WHC “does not allow for a cost-benefit approach to the assessment of harm and that it is irrational to conclude that the physical destruction of one part of the 4,000-year-old World Heritage Site can be offset by possible future benefits to other parts of the site”.

Tom Holland, president of The Stonehenge Alliance, said: “The government has ignored advice from both UNESCO and the independent panel who presided over a six-month examination. To have won the arguments based on reason and evidence, and then to have them overruled on a ministerial whim, shows just how broken the roads approval process is.

“I urge everyone who cares about the Stonehenge World Heritage Site to support this legal action. There is still a chance to stop the bulldozers moving in and vandalising our most precious and iconic prehistoric landscape.”

Read more:

Development consent granted for A303 Stonehenge bypass

Image credit | Shutterstock