The planning application for a new Stonehenge visitor centre and associated works was considered by Wiltshire Council’s Strategic Planning Committee on Wednesday 20 January.
In summary, the scheme proposals are for closure of the A344/A303 junction at Stonehenge Bottom and greening of the A344 up to the Henge; removal of parking and other facilities from the present location to Airman’s Corner, at the junction of the A344 with the A360 on the western edge of the WHS; retention of a small, partly underground facility for security etc. on the present site; and use of the A344 as a visitor-transit route between the Henge and new visitor-facilities at Airman’s Corner.
The Stonehenge Alliance, of which RESCUE is a member organisation, objected to the planning application (see Alliance letter on the website link, above, at ‘Consultee Response’: 1 December 2009). Although we welcomed proposals to close the A344 to general traffic and removal of the visitor-facilities from the vicinity of the Henge, we objected to the extensive new car and coach parks to be set in the open countryside of the World Heritage Site, and the departure from planning policies for the WHS; and we raised a considerable number of questions about matters on which insufficient information had been provided and on which we felt further consultation was needed before a planning decision could be made.
We also raised matters concerning the Appropriate Assessment of possible impacts of the development on nearby European Special Areas of Conservation. An Appropriate Assessment is required under European law and must be undertaken by the determining authority in advance of determination of the application.
The Alliance, being of the opinion that the application would be best considered at a Public Inquiry, wrote to the Government Office for the South West (GOSW), asking for a call-in to be recommended to the Secretary of State.
We learned that Natural England had apparently withdrawn its advice for additional work to be undertaken to inform the Appropriate Assessment shortly before the Officer’s Report to the Strategic Planning Committee was made available to the public a week before its meeting on 20 January. The Alliance still had concerns about the Appropriate Assessment that had then been undertaken and asked its solicitor to write to the Council (see application web link, ‘Representation Letters’: Letter from Earth Rights, 25 January 2009). It also had concerns about the Officer’s Report to Committee (see http://cms.wiltshire.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=145&MId=618&Ver=4) and wrote again to the GOSW, detailing those concerns at some length (see below), and again asked for a call-in to be recommended. We learned shortly before the planning meeting that the Secretary of State was considering whether or not to call in the application.
On 20 January, the Strategic Planning Committee’s principal concerns about the application appeared to relate to traffic congestion and rat-running through local villages to avoid traffic jams on the A303; the need to take the funding on offer for the development now, before it might suddenly be withdrawn; and, not surprisingly, a strong feeling that it was about time that a decision was made to put a new Stonehenge visitor centre somewhere and that you would never find everyone agreeing on where that should be. The adverse impacts of the proposed scheme on the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site and the impact of the facilities on the landscape were hardly mentioned and no S.106 condition was sought to minimise those impacts by amendments to the building, and screening of it and the 500-space car park by vegetation, such as had been advised by ICOMOS-UK, Natural England, CABE, and Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, (see planning application web link: ‘Consultee Response’: ‘preview unavailable, 1 December 2009’ (ICOMOS-UK and NE); ‘CABE, 22 December 2009’; and ‘26 November 2009’ (WANHS)), amongst others.
Committee Members appeared to approve the application as suggested in the Officer’s Report with two amendments to the proposed S.106 Conditions. The Alliance was afterwards informed verbally by a Council Officer that a decision on the application had been deferred and delegated to Officers pending consideration of legal issues raised by the legal representative of the Stonehenge Alliance and taking any associated procedural action arising; a decision was also subject to delegation of completion of the S.106 Agreement. We were not able to obtain the actual wording of the Committee’s decision and still await it (27 January). English Heritage has issued a press release indicating that planning approval for the development is in place and approval of the plans has been reported in the local press (see http://www.salisburyjournal.co.uk/news/salisbury/salisburynews/4866248.Stonehenge_visitor_centre_approved/). There remains confusion about what the Strategic Planning Committee actually resolved.
Meanwhile, we have not yet heard from the Government Office concerning a decision by the Secretary of State. It would not be too late for anyone who may be concerned to write to the GOSW, asking for the application to be called-in for a Public Inquiry by the Secretary of State. The person to write to is Ms Tracey Williams at Tracey.WILLIAMS@gosw.gsi.gov.uk.