This gives the green light to construction of a £1.7bn Stonehenge tunnel project, despite the Planning Inspectorate having recommended that consent for the scheme be withheld.
The A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down (Stonehenge) scheme comprises eight miles of dual carriageway, a two-mile tunnel and two new junctions. It also includes a new bypass to the north of the village of Winterbourne Stoke.
The project is designed to ease congestion in the vicinity of the Stonehenge world heritage site, a notorious bottleneck on the A303 for traffic between the southeast and the southwest of England.
Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan said: “The A303 Stonehenge tunnel project is part of the biggest investment in our road network for a generation and we welcome the Secretary of State’s decision. This transformational scheme will return the Stonehenge landscape towards its original setting and will improve journey times for everyone who travels to and from the south west.”
Project director Derek Parody added: “It is a scheme objective to conserve and enhance the World Heritage Site and this is being achieved through close collaborative working with heritage groups, including English Heritage, National Trust, Historic England and the independent A303 Scientific Committee.
“The scheme will not only sustain the Outstanding Universal Value of the WHS, it will also have a beneficial effect, and extensive archaeological studies and assessments have been undertaken to provide evidence of the benefits that the scheme will deliver for the World Heritage Site.
“The decision represents a major milestone, not only for us as the project team but for all those who have supported this project over a number of years; our stakeholders, the heritage bodies, local and regional businesses and indeed local communities.”
The transport secretary’s decision follows a planning hearing in 2019. There is now a six-week period in which the decisions may be challenged in the High Court.
In the meantime, Highways England has been progressing the procurement process for the main works contract for the A303 Stonehenge scheme, and is talking to three shortlisted bidders before they submit their final tenders. The value of the main construction contract has been estimated at £1.25bn out of an overall capital cost of £1.7bn. The preferred bidder is expected to be announced in 2021.
As previously reported, the three shortlisted contracting groups are:
- BMJV, comprising Bouygues Travaux Publics and J Murphy & Sons;
- HDJV, consisting of Hochtief Infrastructure GmbH and Dragados;
- MORE JV, comprising FCC Construcción (42.5%), Salini Impregilo (42.5%) and BeMo Tunnelling UK (15%).
The three-mile Sparkford to Ilchester scheme, a further proposed A303 upgrade, is also awaiting a DCO decision next week. Galliford Try has been appointed as the contractor to design and build this scheme.
A third corridor project, the A358 Taunton to Southfields dualling scheme, has had funding confirmed by HM Treasury for the next development stage and a tender process is progressing following last year’s announcement of a preferred route.
Colin Wood, Europe chief executive of Aecom, one of the consultants on the project, said: “The A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down improvement scheme is so much more than a road project to unlock traffic congestion. It will enhance our cultural heritage by removing the road which has blighted the backdrop to Stonehenge, as well as deliver a scheme which has been designed to enhance the area’s biodiversity. The new transport corridor will unlock potential for economic growth in the southwest. It is a legacy which Aecom, as technical partner on the scheme, is proud to work with Highways England to deliver."
Consulting engineer WSP had 150 staff helping Highways England’s development consent order application. Technical director Amy Hallam said: “The right balance has been struck with significant long-term benefits for the southwest, the World Heritage Site, local communities and the environment.”