THE stretch of canal restored as part of the housing development in Wichelstowe could become a crucial link up with the national waterway system.

The Wilts and Berks Canal Trust has long wanted to find a way to connect the southern England network to its northern counterpart.

But crossing the M4 has always been a major barrier.

Now Highways England has given the trust more than £42,000 from its Environment and Wellbeing Fund towards a feasibility study into constructing a crossing of the motorway.

Chief executive of the trust Gordon Olson said: “We are very grateful to Highways England for their generous award and look forward to working in partnership to deliver this important feasibility study.

“The M4 is the biggest barrier to fully restoring the canal and linking England’s northern and southern waterways networks, so the results could be the key to unlocking the potential of the entire project.

“In the short term it would allow us to connect the existing stretch in the Wichelstowe housing development to the north of the motorway, currently under restoration as far as the M4, with the line towards Royal Wootton Bassett to the south, more than doubling the length of canal in water in Swindon and providing a valuable new amenity for the local community.”

Mr Olson says if successful, he hopes the creation of the canal under the motorway would encourage other towns along the route – Melksham, Chippenham, Calne, Cricklade and Wantage – to raise money to help connect the entire network.

He added: “The Wilts and Berks Canal, with its towpath and blue-green corridor, could eventually provide an important new source of local employment, tourism and recreation, as well as establishing vital new habitats for local wildlife.”

Highways England project manager Ian Cole said: “The long-term initiative to restore the canal could also realise a great walking and cycling route and environmental improvements, all of which will attract more visitors to the area, and so help the local economy.

“We’re investing in the environment and communities surrounding our road network, as well as the people travelling and working on it, to make a positive difference to people’s lives. Our aim is to address social and environmental issues and add real value to society.”

Swindon Borough Council is spending nearly £30m on a road to go under the M4 to connect the houses at Wichelstowe to the road network to the south.

The canal will not be able to use the tunnel, which is currently being built.

But cabinet member for strategic infrastructure, transport and planning Gary Sumner said: “I am very pleased to see this existing section of the canal receiving the attention it deserves.

“Canals play an essential part in helping to make our town a vibrant and healthy place to live and work and it is important that we make sure the water levels are maintained.

"Whether you just want to stroll, get back to nature or take a short boat trip, I am delighted that we have this amazing resource for residents and visitors alike to make use of.”