Rescue says: it’s not only the Stonehenge decision that should worry us all

Rescue is dismayed to see how arguments surrounding the Stonehenge tunnel seem to have degenerated into a slanging match between archaeologists. How could this have happened? The argument should be focused on a decision that impacts severely on the surroundings of one of our most important monuments, not about the how, what or who of the associated archaeological work. Of course, if the scheme goes ahead, we all want to see the best outcome from the investigations and Rescue’s priority will be to argue that the cost imperative must not become the one that decides what the archaeologists can or cannot do. After all, if the budgets of almost all infrastructure construction can soar uncontrollably, why not that of the archaeological work?
Rescue is concerned that the focus on Stonehenge may allow other pernicious threats to our heritage to pass without enough notice. What we see at Stonehenge is the most extreme example of an attitude from this Government that fails to place sufficient value on heritage. We must not forget that the driver for this decision on the short tunnel was cost, a value judgment that recognised the need to avoid damage to the Stonehenge monument but failed to value both the direct and indirect setting impacts on its cultural and historic landscape – acknowledged to be a heritage asset of the highest significance.
However, we need to look beyond this one road scheme. The government has just announced a major road building and infrastructure programme. This boost to infrastructure construction comes on top of a number of ongoing large schemes and at the same time as the government tries to force through a deeply unpopular planning reform bill in which heritage protection is notable by its absence and which seems designed to continue to reduce it. We are still to experience the full effect of new Permitted Development Rights which came into force in September. Current new environmental and agricultural legislation also threaten changes to existing protections. We should be very worried.
Disregard for the opinion of UNESCO about the WHS at Stonehenge is unlikely to be a sign that our undesignated assets, and the as yet undiscovered assets, designated or not, including future WHSs and Scheduled monuments, as well as all the other pieces of our communal heritage that await discovery will be better treated. Of particular concern is the dangerous precedent the Stonehenge decision has now set for the future protection of the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City WHS, currently on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List.
Rescue’s priority is firmly focused on these broader, long term concerns. However, in the meantime, much as we dislike the Stonehenge scheme we can be assured that the spotlight on that project will ensure that the archaeology is given necessary priority. But we need to ensure that while we raise concerns about this we don’t allow everything else to be quietly abandoned. As archaeologists we need to accept differing opinions and allow each other to express our concerns without turning the battle inwards – or else we shall surely lose more than the status of one World Heritage Site.

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