Local people are fighting a government plan to dig a highway tunnel under Stonehenge.

The UK government wants to build a 2.9km tunnel under the UNESCO-recognised world heritage site, but local communities, archaeologists and environmental groups have united to call for an alternative, less damaging plan.

Friends of the Earth have criticised continued investment in road building, which they described as “1970s thinking”.

Local campaigner Siôn Elis Williams said:

“Money for the road scheme could be invested in a region that is crying out for significant investment in its bus and rail network to increase accessibility, improve air quality and boost sustainable tourism.”

The ancient stone circle is 4,500 years old – as old as the earliest Egyptian pyramids – and a unique example of Neolithic life in Europe.

A group of leading archaeologists produced a detailed response to a government consultation where they explain the damage the project is likely to do the unique landscape around the famous monument.

The Stonehenge Alliance is one of the loudest voices opposing the project.  They are calling on members of the public to sign their UK and international petitions to oppose the road scheme. The group argues that the scheme would cause “irreparable damage” and threaten “the very integrity of the World Heritage Site”. They conclude:

“If we allow the damaging A303 Stonehenge scheme to go ahead, nowhere is safe from the bulldozer.”

After years of campaigning, a smaller road which passed very close to the stones was finally closed in 2013, but the A303 road continues to carry traffic nearby.

The Stonehenge Alliance was first formed back in 2001 to oppose a previous scheme for widening the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down and digging a shorter 2.1km tunnel close to the Stones linked to 2.4km stretch of above-ground highway within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site – a scheme that was defeated after the government finally accepted it was too expensive and technically difficult to deliver.

The latest scheme proposes a slightly longer tunnel and has been approved by the National Trust. The Trust, which is a major conservation organization in the UK, owns some of the land surrounding Stonehenge. Opponents point out that the major building works, including the tunnel’s entrance portals will not be located on National Trust land.

There are also clear environmental risks to the scheme. The RSPB opposes the plan because of its impact on stone-curlew nesting territories. They describe the recent recovery of the stone curlew population on Salisbury Plain as: “a modern-day conservation success story”.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – required by EU law for motorways construction – was carried out by Highways England. It identified a rare red algae (Hildenbrandia rivularis) that grows on local flint stones and turns a spectacular bright pink when exposed to sunlight. The EIA found that the scheme could tip the delicate ecological balance of the area in a way that could threatening the algae.

In a blog entry Paul Quinn of Friends of the Earth spells out four clear alternatives to the government plan including doing nothing or investing the money elsewhere. He points out that transport has become the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and that the controversy around the Stonehenge plans “shines a light on the lack of a sensible approach to transport in Britain.

Ultimately, Quinn asks:

“Is it worth jeopardising more than 5,000 years of history, and a unique natural environment, in the hope of cutting a few minutes off a road journey?”