The British tend to be very supportive of 3 things: The NHS, the National Trust and Sir David Attenborough and although they get vocal about the faults of the first two. they’d be furious if someone tried to take them away. It wouldn’t be Britain without them. But just lately something’s gone wrong at the Trust.
To their credit, for years they (and their boss) have valiantly fought “conservation creep” (the drift in the official definition of conservation from “safeguarding” to “maintaining and managing change”), as befits a charity that works “to preserve and protect historic places and spaces – for ever, for everyone“. But recently at a notorious and (we thought) uncomfortable live AGM it was announced they wouldn’t be opposing a “short” Stonehenge tunnel (thus ditching “safeguarding special places” in favour of “managing change”). All of them? Or were some of them wishing they were in a tunnel? I don’t know. All I do know is that the Trust wasn’t always like this. Remember their press releases a decade ago, e.g. “National Trust calls for full delivery of Stonehenge vision” (2003) and “Don’t sell Stonehenge short” (2004)?
Given its laudable record you’d think the Trust could be trusted to express the true reality, i.e. that tunnels harm nothing but access roads destroy everything (and the short tunnel requires dual carriageway-sized trenches inside the WHS). In 2002 English Heritage’s chief archaeologist said of a trench proposed for the then cut and cover scheme: “the thought of gouging that massive trench across such a precious landscape just brought tears to my eyes.” The Trust’s leadership should reveal to the public if their trench will make them cry but instead they (and EH) seem to be implying the trenches will bring net benefits and that the damage can somehow be worked round or minimised. But they can’t and it would involve sleight of hand to present a plan that purported to. The archaeological landscape there is just too rich, there’s no room to insert a harmless trench.
It looks as if NT and EH have simply stopped resisting massive harm to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and the only “harm” they are still trying to avoid is the harm to their own reputations. Hence this headline in November (days before the Government announced the short tunnel and months after they’d told the Government they’d support it!): “We want a longer A303 tunnel at Stonehenge says English Heritage and National Trust“. And these two “wriggles” – one by NT: “We would love a 4.5km tunnel to be announced, to be on the table, but what we did was try to take a proactive, pragmatic approach to what might be acceptable to us” (a “pragmatic approach” which they had never, ever, ever considered acceptable before!) and one by EH: “What this is about is the Government gets the traffic moving but we protect what’s special about Stonehenge and all the other monuments.” (See? EH has managed to do what no parent ever can: choose which child to save and which to let perish!)
They – and Britain – really have no moral right to do this. As Kate Fielden of the Stonehenge Alliance has pointed out: “the fact is, our Government is committed under the World Heritage Convention to protect the whole site, not just parts of it“. Compare that simple statement with what the NT’s Assistant Director of Operations said on BBC Somerset: (no longer available but here’s an accurate transcript) : “We’ve been doing work to see if we can assess different portal locations against, you know, what’s important in that landscape and we think there may be some alternative portal locations that weren’t necessarily considered before…. which would have an overall benefit for the site….. there IS going to be an impact where the tunnel comes out …. but we’ve been trying to find some locations where there’s a sort of net gain if you like for heritage and the landscape”. Got that? They’ve found places to put the trenches they hadn’t thought of before and are saying that if those are used there’ll be an overall benefit for the site!“
Well, ALL portal locations would cause massive damage, there are no magic ones that don’t and anyway they surely don’t have the moral right or mandate to pursue a “net gain” at the expense of destroying part of the site do they? If they think otherwise let them first explain to the world, with absolute precision, how this UNESCO statement on world heritage is wrong: “The deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world.”
The current bottom line is that the NT is proposing to support bequeathing to future generations a Stonehenge fashioned through the juxtaposition of short-term electoral manoevering and the fact its two guardians have taken their eyes off the ball. “This ancient place will finally have the future it deserves” wrote the Trust’s archaeologist recently. Actually, isn’t it the reality that if those trenches are dug Stonehenge will have the future it doesn’t deserve, forever, for everyone. Is it the role of today’s National Trust to countenance such a thing? Can we please have back the Trust that most Trust supporters (and it’s employees perchance?) would wish for?
Or you might like to contact the Trust by phone, post, email or online and tell them their current stance isn’t in line with your instinct or what their instinct used to be and they should do something both radical and right: think again. The Trust is not a natural Government lapdog so this is one of those rare occasions when public opinion just might change what’s happening.
(National Trust employees are not excluded from this invitation!)