A tunnel is to be built under Stonehenge under plans announced by ministers, in a move that will reignite the controversy over improving major roads around the ancient site.
Chris Grayling said he was taking a “big decision” to transform the A303, one of the main arteries to the south-west and a notorious bottleneck for lorries and holidaymakers, as part of a £2bn investment.
The transport secretary said the tunnel could enhance the Stonehenge site by removing traffic. The concept has been backed by its custodians, English Heritage and the National Trust.
But others regard it as a scheme that could irreparably damage the world heritage site. Last year, the historians Dan Snow and Tom Holland attacked the proposals.
Snow, the president of the Council for British Archaeology, likened them to vandals destroying ancient artefacts. “We have recently started to realise that the standing stones are just a beginning. They sit at the heart of the world’s most significant and best-preserved stone-age landscape. The government’s plans endanger this unique site,” he said.
“Around the world we see pictures of our fellow humans smashing the treasures of the past and count ourselves lucky that we live in a country which values its rich history and appreciates what it offers modern Britain. Our heritage helps us understand ourselves, how we got here and where we are going.”
Holland said: “There is so much waiting to be learned about how Stonehenge was built – if we decide, as a country, not to sacrifice it to road building. The battle to save our most significant neolithic landscape is an unending one.”
The 1.8-mile (2.9km) tunnel will run as part of a 7-mile dualled stretch of the A303, making the road a more effective link to the M3 and the M5 and speeding up journeys to and from the south-west.
A Unesco report approved the plans in principle last year, opening the way to resolving two decades of protests over new roads around Stonehenge.
Up to £2bn is being spent on the A303 and other works in the south-west as part of a £15bn road strategy announced in 2014.
Grayling said: “This major investment in the south-west will transform the A303 and benefit those locally by cutting congestion and improving journey times. It will also boost the economy, linking people with jobs, and businesses with customers – driving forward our agenda to build a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.”
A public consultation will run until March.