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The Age of Austerity Challenges Stonehenge

Julia Werdigier|The New York Times
Thursday, 12 Aug 2010 | 11:04 AM ET

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge stands tall in the British countryside as one of the last remnants of the Neolithic Age. Recently it has also become the latest symbol of another era: the new fiscal austerity.

Renovations — including a plan to replace the site’s run-down visitors center with one almost five times bigger and to close a busy road that runs along the 5,000-year-old monument — had to be mothballed in June. The British government had suddenly withdrawn £10 million, or $16 million, in financing for the project as part of a budget squeeze.

Stonehenge, once a temple with giant stone slabs aligned in a circle to mark the passage of the sun, is among the most prominent victims of the government’s spending cuts. The decision was heavily criticized by local lawmakers, especially because Stonehenge, a Unesco World Heritage site, was part of London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

The shabby visitors center there now is already too small for the 950,000 people who visit Stonehenge each year, let alone the additional onslaught of tourists expected for the Games, the lawmakers say.

Stonehenge, England
John Wang | Photodisc | Getty Images
Stonehenge, England

“It’s a disgrace,” said Ian West, a Wiltshire councilor. “The visitor facilities are definitely not fit for purpose.”

Alan Brown, who was visiting from Australia this week, agreed. “They should really treat this site as the best prehistoric site,” Mr. Brown said. “There is so much more they could do to improve it.”

Stonehenge is the busiest tourist attraction in Britain’s southwest, topping even Windsor Castle. But no major improvements have been made to the facilities there since they were built 40 years ago.

For now, portable toilets lead from a crammed parking lot, via a makeshift souvenir shop in a tent, to a ticket office opposite a small kiosk that sells coffee and snacks.

The overhaul was scheduled for next spring. Plans by the architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall would keep the stone monument itself unchanged. But the current ticket office and shop would be demolished and a new visitors center would be built on the other side of the monument, about two and a half kilometers, or 1.5 miles, from the stones.

The center would include a shop almost five times the size of the current one, a proper restaurant, three times as many parking spots and an exhibition space to provide more information about Stonehenge’s history.

A transit system would shuttle visitors between the center and the stones while footpaths would encourage tourists to walk to the monument and explore the surrounding burial hills. The closed road would be grassed over to improve the surrounding landscape.

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Last year, the £27 million project won the backing of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. After more than 25 years of bickering with local communities about how and where to build the new center, planning permission was granted in January. Construction was supposed to start next year and be completed in time for the Olympics — but the economic downturn has changed those plans.

The new prime minister, David Cameron, has reversed many of his predecessor’s promises as part of a program to cut more than £99 billion annually over the next five years to help close a gaping budget deficit. The financing for Stonehenge fell in the first round of cuts, worth about £6.2 billion, from the budget for the current year, along with support for a hospital and the British Film Institute.

“We are frustrated and disappointed,” Peter Carson, head of Stonehenge, said, standing in a windowless office at the site surrounded by boxes filled with toys and other souvenirs from the gift shop. It is now unclear whether someone else may step in to pay for the new visitors center.

English Heritage, a partly government-financed organization that owns Stonehenge and more than 400 other historic sites in the country, is now aggressively looking for private donations. But the economic downturn has made the endeavor more difficult.

Gary Norman, a tourist from Phoenix, said it was obvious that the visitors center was too small, but he acknowledged that “right now, with a global recession, £10 million is a lot of money.”

Hunched over architectural renderings of the new center, Loraine Knowles, Stonehenge’s project director, said she was disappointed that the government had withdrawn money while continuing to support museums in London, like the Tate and the British Museum.

But Ms. Knowles said she was hopeful that English Heritage could raise the money elsewhere. Stonehenge, she said, could then also become “a shining example of how philanthropy could work.”

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