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Regional shift takes Stonehenge road tunnel off the priority list

NEWS

UK TRANSPORT Secretary Alistair Darling last month all but killed off plans for the £192M upgrade 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.

Darling announced he was shunting the scheme into a regional priority list. The project will now only proceed if regional government in south west England 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.

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.

The Department for Transport (DfT) last month announced a fundamental shift in England's roads planning, with the trunk road network divided into roads of 'national' or 'regional' importance.

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 for a start on site next year. It was expecting a planning inspector's verdict in March.

Project sources were furious 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 government pledge to UNESCO that it would preserve the World Heritage Site by putting the road in a tunnel.

The DCMS said it still rated the project as a priority but would not confirm it had been involved in the downgrading. The Highways Agency refused to comment.

The DfT said the project depended on the transport secretary's response to the planning inspector's recommendations 'and an announcement made at the appropriate time'

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