It seems that the likelihood of a short tunnel at Stonehenge has increased now that Historic England has published guidance which legitimises major works at World Heritage sites if there are “important planning justifications“.  Such a proposition, which is little more than an assertion of central power, is likely to be frequently heard during any public consultation period. It is not a proposition that will necessarily play well beyond Britain. Will the Government be able to quietly persuade UNESCO to say a short tunnel is OK? It may not be easy, as shown by the following excerpts from two ICOMOS publications. The idea of UNESCO being “got at” is a controversial and disrespectful one, for which we apologise, but almost every word below suggests they are themselves acutely aware there’s a real risk:

ICOMOS EthicalICOMOS Policy

It hasn’t happened so far (Lord Ahmad has revealed that Highways England’s preliminary planning for the tunnel scheme has not included any consultation with ICOMOS-UK). But UNESCO will have to be formally approached sooner or later. What if they won’t play? Well, we could defy them and let them chuck us out. Or we could withdraw on the pretext they were wasting money, like we threatened to do 5 years ago. Or we could actually withdraw, citing anti-Western bias and financial mismanagement like Margaret Thatcher did in 1985. It seems certain that one of those three consequences would have to come about. What is less certain is that UNESCO would disregard it’s own ethical safeguards and give the short tunnel (or a pragmatic compromise version of it) it’s blessing. It’s not that sort of organisation.

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Addendum: Incidentally, we notice the Head of International Advice for Historic England is about to deliver a public lecture in Birmingham. The introductory text says the UK can sometimes find itself at odds with the broad consensus view about how best to manage and protect WHSs. In particular the concept of “constructive conservation” can clash with less flexible approaches to protection.”

One has to wonder whether that puzzling term “constructive conservation” is another phrase we may be hearing a lot of during the short tunnel consultation period?

Addendum 2: In addition, last month the Principle Inspector of Historic England spoke at an academic conference on “Constructive Conservation at the Heart of Place Making”. Something’s definitely up! But will UNESCO get on board?