A senior Highways England official has said that its plans for a tunnel at Stonehenge are constrained by an affordability limit set by the Government, while a top civil servant has said that it looks like the ‘the damn thing’ will finally get built.
Speaking at an industry event on Thursday, Tricia Hayes – director general for roads, motoring and devolution in the Department for Transport (DfT) – joked that while plans around building a tunnel on the A303 route had been knocking around for decades she believed this time was different, adding that she was pleased with the support she had so far received from key groups.
‘We have had a few goes at this over the years, haven’t we? It’s not the first try but I honestly believe this time we are going to build the damn thing. It’s going to be great. If you said to me even a year ago that we would have a proposition that had explicit public support from the National Trust and English Heritage I would have been really pleased about that.’
However the National Trust leadership is facing major criticism from its members over its support for the tunnel.
Highways England project director Derek Parody said the Government had set an affordability limit of £1.6bn for the scheme – equivalent to its current estimated costs – which meant that ‘the scheme can only afford a tunnel which has entrances, and obviously exits, within the World Heritage Site’.
The location of the tunnel portals has been a controversial element of Highways England’s preferred route announcement in September.
In its public consultation in January, Highways England said cost of the tunnel ‘is likely to be in the order of £1.4bn, within a range extending up to a maximum of £1.8bn’.
Asked to expand on the implications of the tight budget for the scheme, Mr Parody said: ‘The implications are that any improvements to it – and there’s been a lot of pressure from various bodies for instance to increase the length of the tunnel – just wouldn’t fit within the affordability envelope and would not be progressed on that basis. So we’re already reaching as much as government is prepared to spend on the scheme. The only way we can create headroom from here on in is to value engineer some of the components out of it.
‘As you can see from the nature of the scheme, it’s really quite difficult to value engineer anything because the bulk of the cost of the scheme is the tunnel and the cost of the tunnel is the tunnel. So we’re looking for some good innovation, for some good tunnelling people to come up with some good solutions.’
Mr Parody said Highways England’s Strategic Design Panel, which recently released a key report, is currently looking at the project, but in a way that is unique to the scheme.
He said: ‘[The scheme] needs to create a good road – a road that can be integrated into the environment in a sympathetic way. So it is looking at that and we are presenting solutions to them on a regular basis. But there is an overriding need to present a design that works, which is to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site, and that shapes to some extent what the key elements of the solution are going to look like.
‘We can play around with what a portal might look like. We can play around with what a retaining wall might look like. But the key features, which is the infrastructure in the World Heritage Site are really dictated by the need to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site. And that is probably more led by our heritage partners than it is by the design panel.’