I apologise if I sniff and cough my way through my contribution. One connection that I might have with those who built Stonehenge, other than a love of the stones themselves, is the fact that I am suffering from a common cold, which no doubt they experienced during its construction.
I pay tribute to Robert Key for introducing this important debate at this crucial time. Clearly he has a constituency interest, but I am sure that it has been demonstrated to all hon. Members that his interest goes far beyond that—he has a personal connection to the site having grown up in the area. He spoke about the long identification of Stonehenge as a world heritage site. Happily we now have many more in this country, but this country's performance will be assessed according to how we approach our more major and long-standing commitments, such as that to Stonehenge.
The hon. Gentleman addressed the wider historical landscape and the dangers of simplistic solutions, such as closing the junction on the A344, in isolation, which would not resolve the problems facing the landscape and the site itself, but would have consequences for congestion on the A303 and present problems for his constituents and those seeking to explore and enjoy the wider south-west. He also mentioned shadow tolling, which shows that he has a positive contribution to make and is not merely criticising the Government. He should be congratulated on taking a constructive approach.
The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of the visitors' centre, as did David Wright. However, although progress on the visitors' centre would be welcome, we must consider how people would get there, otherwise we could create a huge problem. We cannot encourage greater numbers of people to experience what is on offer without affording them proper access. The hon. Member for Salisbury also spoke of the connection with the supporting heritage and tourist facilities in Salisbury and elsewhere, and about the importance of finding the right approach for the benefit of the wider economy and Stonehenge itself.
The hon. Member for Telford spoke about the long-standing support of the all-party world heritage sites group for Stonehenge, and I pay tribute to the work of his group. He raised some crucial points about the landscape and maintaining the stones' legacy, which is why we all support the scheme on which sadly the Government recently turned their backs. It presented an opportunity to reunite some of the features of the landscape. He spoke also about the link with the 2012 games and the opportunity to present the heritage of our country at its very best. That deadline looms for all sorts of projects. I hope that the Minister will refer to that in her remarks.
We might be having this debate during the last full year in which Stonehenge enjoys and retains unquestioned UNESCO world heritage status, as has been mentioned. After years of failing Stonehenge, Ministers in the Department for Transport seem to have settled on failure as their chosen course of action. Stonehenge is arguably the United Kingdom's single most important historical monument, but sadly the Government's recent decision puts the UNESCO world heritage status at risk. The monument is at risk from further damage from growing volumes of traffic. UNESCO accorded Stonehenge its world heritage status on the condition that nearby roads be examined and progress be made on protecting the site.
Transport Ministers have consistently let down the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by underestimating the importance of the scheme. Indeed, the DFT sees the A303 improvements as a regional scheme only, which demonstrates its indifference to Stonehenge's national and international significance. I speak from the heart as a Member for a south-west constituency where there are other projects. Had the scheme gone ahead, it would have gobbled up south-west funding for many years to come. Trying to brush the scheme off as regional would, therefore, have had deleterious effects on important safety schemes, such as the A30 improvement between Temple and Higher Carblake in north Cornwall.
Now that a decision has finally been made, we need to look to the future. The Minister must have asked herself, "What am I going to do now?" She has said that she still wants to resolve this matter, so what are her plans for the current Stonehenge visitors' centre and what is the future for the ambitious plans previously connected with the A303 changes and the centre? What is her, and her Department's, view of the proposed closure of the A303-A344 junction? Local Members are said to be concerned about further congestion in that area, and hon. Members have raised that concern in this debate. What, on balance, does she believe should be done?
As we have heard, UNESCO will meet next year to discuss Stonehenge's status. How will the Minister convince UNESCO to give the Government the benefit of the doubt? She will need to act early to influence the UNESCO world heritage centre's report to the world heritage committee in July. Images of Stonehenge were used as part of the successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, and improvements to the site were anticipated to be in place by then. It is a cruel irony that a British site given such credence by the International Olympic Committee should be given so little priority by the British Government themselves.
Before the DFT made its decision, how many visitors did the Minister anticipate visiting Stonehenge in 2012? By contrast, how many does she think will now get there? Indeed, what does she anticipate to be the wider implications for tourism in the wider south-west of the DFT's decision? Stonehenge is a magnet for the region, but the A303 is also a major artery to the wider south-west, and the Government have chosen to undermine one and block the other. What was the outcome of the Stonehenge programme board meeting on
Have Treasury officials been asked to compare the relative worth of capital expenditure on protecting a site of such unique status as Stonehenge with, for example, other high-profile Government schemes? Have DFT officials been asked to compare the increased costs of going ahead with the Stonehenge scheme with other schemes that have suffered serious delay? It has been reported that the costs are much higher than originally anticipated, but in the meantime the costs of most road schemes have also escalated due to rising labour costs. Should not the DFT have anticipated that likely increase in cost when it was budgeting?
After a decade of dithering, there remain countless questions for the Government. It is almost 18 years since the Public Accounts Committee said that the setting around Stonehenge was "a national disgrace", but we seem to have moved no further forward. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Minister's recent support for Stonehenge, but we need to know that she is not whistling in the inter-departmental wind. She has to convince not only this House, but UNESCO. We all agree that for Stonehenge to lose its status would be a tragedy. I hope we can agree that the south-west as a whole needs the revenue it receives from tourism, and that the Government's decisions on Stonehenge will have serious effects on it, too.
The Government have spent years failing to decide, and now they have decided to do nothing. Stonehenge may be famous for its longevity, but it cannot wait for action for ever.