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2.30 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to meet under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I wish you a very happy Christmas and a good new year.

At dawn on Saturday, if the weather is clement, I will join a select group of enthusiasts at Stonehenge to witness the first sunrise after the winter solstice. It is a far more significant occasion than the summer solstice. Our ancestors calculated the exact date of the year’s turn, when they could look forward to longer days and the green shoots of spring, and laid out Stonehenge accordingly.

Stonehenge was inscribed as a world heritage site in 1986, and the UNESCO-approved management plan was published in April 2000. The stones are instantly recognisable, and are a worldwide symbol of our ancient heritage. They were shaped and erected more than 3,000 years ago, and their lintels, unique jointing and perfect geometry make Stonehenge the most sophisticated stone circle in the world. But it is more than just stones. Within the 2,600-hectare site are more than 400 scheduled ancient monuments in a ceremonial landscape that includes the avenue, the cursus and nearby Woodhenge. Just to the east lies Durrington Walls, where the people who built Stonehenge lived in a village of hundreds of houses that featured a stone-surfaced avenue. The secrets of Durrington Walls have only recently started to be revealed.

Members of Parliament must consider the national interest as well as their constituency interests. Similarly, the Government have a duty to consider the implications of their national decisions for local communities. In November 1995, the planning conference on Stonehenge and the A303 resulted in 16 resolutions and a remarkable consensus among the representatives who attended. Sadly, that national and local consensus has slipped. Last week, a local survey by Vision News, Salisbury’s online TV station, found that most people disagreed that the Government were right to cancel the Stonehenge A303 road project and tunnel. In fact, only one person who was interviewed favoured cancelling it.

That surprised me. Despite some triumphalism from those who oppose the tunnel project, most people just want something to be done to minimise the negative impact of traffic congestion on their daily lives. They are proud of Stonehenge, but they mind more about getting to work and home again across the barrier of the choked A303. It is outrageous that the Government have abandoned my constituents in Winterbourne Stoke. That village and Chicklade to the west are now the only communities between London and the west of England without a bypass.

If the A344 is closed, traffic will double on the A360 between Airman’s Corner and Longbarrow roundabout and increase by a third on the A303 past the stones. Unless my constituents in Orcheston, Tilshead and Shrewton are served by a new junction at Airman’s Corner and an A303 underpass at Longbarrow, their councillors will not agree to the closure of the A344. That agreement is essential to planning permission. Objective 11 of the management plan requires the A344 and A303 to be removed or screened. Interestingly, support is growing for the planting of trees along both roads, within the world heritage site. Will the Stonehenge project board please consider that?

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The Department for Transport has just saved itself more than £500 million and announced that any new money for even minor road improvements must come from the meagre south-west regional road budget. That is totally unacceptable. Why should people in Devon and Cornwall lose their road improvements to pay for the wreckage of a national road project that was funded from the Department for Transport’s budget until 6 December?

Meanwhile, my constituents in Larkhill, Bulford, Durrington and Amesbury will be plagued by rat-running to avoid the gridlock past the stones. There is increasing evidence of rat-running further south—down the A338 along the Bourne valley to Salisbury and then along the A30 through the Nadder valley to Hindon, bypassing the entire Stonehenge section of the A303.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): My hon. Friend knows that I have a particular interest in the village of Chitterne. I should be grateful if he added it to his list of villages likely to suffer from increased rat-running, particularly with the advent of satnav. On a more positive note, will he commend the Ordnance Survey, which will now inform those who make satnav instruments, for consulting with local government to determine preferred routes and freight routes? Does he agree that that cannot come soon enough? It will prevent vehicles from clogging up villages, often getting stuck down lanes where they have no business being.

Robert Key: My hon. Friend and neighbour knows that Chitterne and many of our villages are plagued by satnav lost sheep. Lorries from all over Europe regularly get stuck on completely inappropriate roads signed on satnav as the best way to get from A to B. I have pursued the matter with the Department for Transport during the past 18 months or so, but the Department can do precious little about it—it requires Europe-wide action. The real problem is that whatever satnav might say, a driver confronted with a road must rely on signs. If a sign says that the road is narrow, has a weight limit or other restriction or is otherwise inappropriate—and if the driver can read English—it will work, but there is nothing physically to prevent truck drivers from driving down an inappropriate road and getting stuck. It is a massive problem, and we have yet to come up with a solution. How right he is to draw attention to it.

Will the Government please consider afresh the potential in the long term for tolling, or shadow tolling, a major road improvement for the strategic A303 route? I have raised the point before. Of course I do not mean toll booths either side of Stonehenge; smart cards or even global positioning system technology will soon be equal to the challenge. Design, build, finance and operate contracts, with shadow tolling, are well tried in this country and could be an attractive option for the medium to long term.

In April 1986, UNESCO said that the A344 past the stones must be rerouted. In November 1986, the UNESCO world heritage committee

that the closure was being seriously considered. In April 2002, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told UNESCO that planning consent for the new visitor centre would be submitted, and the highways
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consent procedure for the tunnel initiated, in December. In 2003, UNESCO welcomed the decision to construct a bored tunnel and asked for a report by 1 February 2004, which DCMS provided, albeit on 28 May 2004. UNESCO then asked for another report by 1 February 2005, which did not come. In summer 2005, it asked for an updated report by 1 February 2007. Meanwhile, in 2006, it noted that DCMS had provided no time frame for the Stonehenge project and that management was weak.

In July this year, the world heritage committee received a brief report full of good intentions that said how difficult it all was. Now the Government are washing their hands of Stonehenge and leaving it to the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to pick up the pieces. I do not doubt her good intentions and determination. She needs all the support that she can get.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I am here as the chairman of the all-party group on world heritage sites to tell the hon. Gentleman that this is in many senses a cross-party issue. The site is of major significance not just in the UK but throughout the world. The all-party group, as he knows, is keen to see the matter resolved. The visitor centre is not up to standard for the previous century, let alone the future. I want the group to support his efforts to ensure a settlement on the road network in his constituency. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

Robert Key: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I salute him for the work that he does for the all-party group on world heritage sites, of which I am an assiduous attender. I also welcome the support that the group, which draws its membership from both Houses and from a wide range of support in the world of culture and heritage, has already given to the Stonehenge project.

I refer to the Government because I believe that this 21-year-old saga represents a systemic failure in the machinery of government. Successive Culture Secretaries have not been powerful enough to obtain Cabinet agreement; and Transport Secretaries have always found it easier to give greater priority to other roads. I understand that the £500 million in this case will go instead to widening the M25. Four Prime Ministers have failed to acknowledge the importance of our national heritage to our culture needs, let alone to our tourism and transport needs. Only the Treasury has won every round.

In February 2008, the Minister of State must report progress to UNESCO, following the Government’s decision to abandon the road and the proposed visitor centre. At its July meeting, the world heritage committee will

Will the Minister confirm that time scale, and say whether she expects to submit a revised management plan to UNESCO in January 2009?

The Government are already in trouble, because they have failed to restrain the encroachment of new tall buildings on the world heritage sites here at Westminster and down the river at the Tower of London. Only last month, UNESCO threatened the delisting of the Dresden
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Elbe valley site because the landscape would be degraded by a new bridge. It would indeed be a national humiliation if Stonehenge were to be put on the endangered list. I do not think that it will happen.

I congratulate the Minister, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), for calling an emergency meeting on 10 December of the new Stonehenge project board, in order to agree terms of reference, to consider options for the future, and to decide the key issues and what can now be delivered. By all accounts, it was an eclectic gathering of the main stakeholders in the south-west of England. Crucially, however, the local planning authority was not represented. That caused consternation. Will the Minister confirm whether Salisbury district council was invited to the meeting? If it was, I consider it a dereliction of duty that not one councillor or council officer could be found to attend that meeting.

Looking forward, will the Minister assure us that the starting point for a new beginning must be the existing management plan, revised to take account of the new situation? Will she retain the three long-term objectives—objectives 1, 2 and 3? They are the endorsement of the management plan; the improvement of the management and conservation of the cultural landscape; and the interpretation of the universal value of the whole world heritage site. Will she continue to promote public enjoyment, education and research at Stonehenge?

Under the terms of objective 14 of the plan, and as a gesture of good intent to UNESCO, will the Minister consider adding to the site the unique Parsonage Down national nature reserve and Yarnbury castle, which lie to the west of the stones? I believe that they should have been included from the start.

Will the Minister also say how much money the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will contribute to the new visitor centre? The right hon. Lady has done so well to pledge that the Government will have a new centre up and running by 2012. Such a project on such a tight time scale must be primed with the help of the taxpayer. English Heritage is already in discussion with the Heritage Lottery Fund, which suddenly has more than £20 million to spend on something else—the Olympics?—following the decision not to proceed with the visitor centre. Will the Minister assure us that her Department will give 100 per cent. backing to a lottery bid by English Heritage?

Objective 18 of the management plan states that a new world-class visitor centre should be secured to act as a gateway to Stonehenge, to improve the visitor experience and to encourage the dispersal of visitors around the entire world heritage site. Will the Minister maintain that objective? I said in the House last week that something cheap and cheerful would not do. What we are embarking on is a semi-permanent solution that is likely to last for at least 20 years, until a new strategic plan can be agreed. It must be a visitor centre of high quality, innovation and vision.

May I recommend that all those involved revisit the Fargo North scheme, published in April 1998? There are well-reasoned arguments for a centre just north of the A344 and west of Fargo plantation. That would be a good site. Much of the transport planning, including designs for new road junctions, has been done. That could considerably shorten the time scale necessary for
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design work. If the 1998 proposal could be updated to include a grade-separated junction at the Long Barrow junction of the A303 and the A360, that might well avoid a public planning inquiry and would save at least a year.

UNESCO has always been critical of facilities for interpretation and explanation, and so have I. However, I at least had the advantage during my childhood in Salisbury of spending many hours at the stones and at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire museum, which has the best Stonehenge collection in the country. Under its new chairman and director, the museum is planning a new “Stonehenge Experience”. Given the circumstances that we now face, DCMS and English Heritage have a golden opportunity to join forces with the museum—the Minister visited it with me in September—to create a world-class exhibition and learning experience. It would be in service within two years, well ahead of any possible delivery at Stonehenge—and it would be only a stone’s throw away. It would also represent good value for money, at about £1.5 million.

Already, thousands of people combine visits to Stonehenge with trips to the English Heritage site at Old Sarum and Salisbury cathedral. In 2008, our cathedral celebrates its 750th anniversary, and there will be many new reasons for people to combine visits to the sites—and also to visit local National Trust properties, including Mompesson house. There is also early discussion about the nomination of our incomparable Salisbury cathedral close as a future world heritage site.

Now is the time for us all to work together to ensure that Stonehenge becomes more than a tourist destination—that it becomes a wonderful experience for all who marvel at mankind’s ancient footprint on our land and who yearn to understand more of our humanity. Christmas is upon us. All of us—even, dare I say it, English Heritage and the National Trust—should find a large bunch of mistletoe and pledge undying friendship in the interests of Stonehenge.

2.47 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this important debate. He says that he will be at Stonehenge on Saturday. I hope that he will excuse me for not joining him, as it is my birthday; nevertheless, I wish him all the best.

I have particularly fond memories of Stonehenge. My family regularly visited the site on our way to the south coast for our summer holidays. The management of the stones has changed somewhat over the years. We used to have access to them—we could sit on them and wander around them. I have a photograph in my family album of me in a hideous 1970s T-shirt sitting on one of the stones, with my grandfather sitting next to me smoking a Woodbine. I still like to visit Stonehenge, but the Woodbines did for granddad. I am fond of the site and I try to visit it whenever I pass by, as it brings back important family memories.

I am chairman of the all-party group on world heritage sites. It is, I believe, one of the most successful groups in Parliament, with a large attendance. The Minister is to visit the group early in the new year, and I am sure that she will be asked a number of questions about Stonehenge and the management of the site. I speak today largely
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because the subject is an all-party one and it is important to our nation that we get it right. Stonehenge is one of the United Kingdom’s most significant sites. Clearly, all world heritage sites are important, but Stonehenge is recognised across the world as being extremely significant.

The hon. Gentleman said that Stonehenge sits in a landscape. World heritage sites are now considered as part of a wider landscape. For the older sites, it was an iconic feature within the landscape that was designated, but UNESCO and all involved in world heritage now take the view that one has to place sites such as Stonehenge within the landscape setting. That is why this debate is so important. The management of traffic around the site is of major importance, but is not working effectively. Someone driving past Stonehenge will see a lot of people trying to glimpse the stones as they pass by. I do not know how many accidents are caused as a result, but clearly the framework for traffic management is not right.

Sadly, this debate has been ongoing since 1995, and the reports published are stacking up. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise, on behalf of his constituents, the issue of vehicle management, but this is important to the whole nation, so we need to get it right. As he mentioned, a number of other world heritage sites are also under threat. There is a significant debate about the Tower of London, about the world heritage site in which we sit today, and about the impact of tall buildings. UNESCO will wish to take a view on the continuing volume of traffic passing Stonehenge and how it impacts on the way in which people can look at, study and enjoy the wider landscape.

The site is of world significance, but the visitors’ centre is not up to scratch. In fact, it is the same one that I visited while wearing that pretty horrible 1970s T-shirt. The centre has not stood the test of time. It might function, but one would imagine that such an important feature of the landscape required a visitors’ centre that did it credit with, for example, a multi-media presentation of the site and attempts to promote an understanding of the wider landscape. I hope that we will get a commitment from the Minister to major steps forward in traffic management and a visitors’ centre.

It is particularly important that we make progress before 2012. The all-party world heritage sites group wants to pursue the concept of “world heritage, world games”, so that people visiting the UK for the Olympic games will be encouraged to visit world heritage sites—not just Stonehenge, but other sites such as Ironbridge gorge, in my constituency. We want people to visit not just London, but all our major world heritage sites. There could be a fantastic link between the world games and world heritage sites.

It is crucial, however, that Stonehenge has a better-quality visitors’ centre. Many people will want to visit Stonehenge when they come to the London Olympics, because in their home countries they have seen incredible images of that feature of our landscape. However, it is important to focus on the management plans and on delivering them. Plans for all world heritage sites take considerable time to develop, and the organisations involved in putting them together are very proud of them—they are of the plan for Ironbridge gorge, and I am sure that they are of the Stonehenge one as well. We must hold faith with the organisations, and the Government, who have contributed to the development of those plans. They should be seen
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as the main structure for future delivery on traffic and visitor plans around Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I stress to the Minister that this matter is important to all parties in the House and all people in this nation.

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