Stonehenge is “safe”, campaigners have said after the decision to approve £1.7 billion plans for a road tunnel on the Unesco site was ruled unlawful following a judicial review.
Campaigners have won a High Court battle against the plans to construct a “scandalous” tunnel for the A303, which runs past the ancient monument, and expand it into a dual carriageway.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps approved the project in November despite warnings from the Planning Inspectorate that it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the Unesco site.
Plans have now been quashed after a judge found that the minister had no evidence for his claim Stonehenge heritage assets would suffer “less than substantial harm” as a result of the project, a claim used to justify work on the A303.
The decision comes after the campaigners with Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site raised £50,000 for a legal challenge against road plans they believed would cause “massive and irreparable damage to the archaeology and landscape”.
Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith, representing the campaigners, said: “This is a huge victory, which means, for now, Stonehenge is safe.
“The judgment is a clear vindication of our client’s tremendous efforts in campaigning to protect the World Heritage Site.
“The development consent for this damaging tunnel has been declared unlawful and is now quashed, and the Government will have to go back to the drawing board before a new decision can be made.
“Meanwhile, one of the country’s most cherished heritage assets cannot be harmed.”
The Department for Transport is currently weighing its options regarding the High Court ruling, and has not yet indicated whether it plans to appeal.
A spokeswoman said: “We are disappointed in the judgment and are considering it carefully before deciding how to proceed”.
Mr Justice Holgate concluded that the Transport Secretary did not have “legally sufficient material” to assess the harm to Stonehenge, a Unesco site comprising the Neolithic monument and the surrounding Wiltshire landscape rich in archaeological significance.
The judge added that as a result his “planning balance was not struck lawfully”, and went against planning rules.
Mr Justice Holgate further concluded that alternative proposals, including a longer tunnel without both entrances emerging within the Unesco site, were not fully considered.
This was despite the World Heritage Committee, which recently stripped Liverpool of its Unesco accreditation due to overdevelopment, urging the adoption of alternative plans.
Mr Justice Holgate’s decision has been welcomed by a coalition of campaigners comprising the Stonehenge Alliance, which has contested the A303 plans on archaeological and environmental grounds.
Plans backed by Highways England first put forward in 2014 were intended to speed up journey times and relieve heavy traffic on the A303 and in local villages.
Site custodians English Heritage welcomed Mr Shapps’ approval of the plans as a way to reduce the noise and pollution of thousands of vehicles passing the monument daily, and as a means to join up the ancient sacred landscape bisected by the A303.
But Stonehenge expert Mike Parker Pearson, who has worked on the monument for decades, was among the many archaeologists who feared the roadworks would cause the “almost total destruction of all archaeological remains”.
Early wood monuments were erected at the site from around 8,500BC, and the distinctive stone circle was constructed in stages over several hundred years up to around 2,500BC.
The landscape was cut with procession routes and other circles, and was likely of religious significance to prehistoric Britons.