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Fury greets government U-turn on Stonehenge tunnel

News

TRANSPORT SECRETARY Alistair Darling last week all but killed plans for the £192M dualling of the A303 around Stonehenge after downgrading the scheme.

The move calls into question the government's promise to bury the road in tunnel to protect the Stonehenge World Heritage site.

Last week Darling announced he was shunting the scheme into a regional priority list.

The project will now only move ahead if regional government in the South West decides to put it ahead of other local priorities like tram schemes and highway maintenance.

Project sources fear the scheme is dead.

'We would be very surprised if the region gives the scheme a high priority, ' said one.

The source pointed to the fact that other South West road schemes like the A30 Bodmin to Indian Queens upgrade and the M5 climbing lanes projects had recently got the go-ahead.

'The South West has won a number of things recently and you have to look at the cost of Stonehenge against what might be achieved elsewhere, ' said one source close to the project.

Last week the Department for Transport (DfT) announced a fundamental shift in highways planning, with the trunk road network divided into types of 'national' or 'regional' importance (see page 14).

Regional schemes will be prioritised by new Regional Transport Boards (RTBs) but they face huge cost pressures. The Highways Agency's budget for the next three years is believed to be £400M down on the last three years.

Sidelining the A303 is a huge blow to contractor Costain-Balfour Beatty, which won the contract in 2002 under an early contractor involvement deal.

It had mobilised and was ready to start on site next year. It was expecting a planning inspector's verdict in March.

Project sources were furious that the scheme had been rated of 'regional importance' given its national and international significance.

Up to £70M of funding was to come from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). This followed a New Labour pledge to UNESCO that it would preserve the World Heritage Site by putting the existing road in a tunnel (NCE 6 August 1998).

'This is where the disgrace is, ' said the source. 'It is hard to see what regional government is going to do with a scheme that - on environmental grounds - is nationally and internationally important.

'There seems to be a leadership void and the government is not facing up to its obligations.'

The DCMS said that it still rated the project as a priority but would not say if it had been involved in the decision to downgrade it.

The Highways Agency also refused to comment.

The DfT would only say that the project depended on the transport secretary's response to the planning inspector's recommendations.

'The recommendations of the inspector will be considered when they have been received and an announcement made at the appropriate time, ' it said.

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