Campaigners who want to restore an historic canal between Melton and Oakham fear their plans will be scuppered by the preferred route for the proposed new bypass.
The Oakham Canal was opened in 1802 and ran from the terminal basin of the Melton Mowbray Navigation, close to where the borough council offices are now, for around 15 miles to Oakham, utilising 19 broad locks en route.
Boats brought in coal from the Derbyshire coalfields to fuel the homes and industries of the town and return trips took local cheese, wheat, milk and general farm produce to the rest of the country.
Use of the canal gradually declined with the growth of the railway network later in the 19th century and it was eventually abandoned as a transport route.
Members of the Melton and Oakham Waterways Society have been working on plans to restore the canal with a towpath to provide walkers and cyclists with a car-free pathway between the two towns. But that scheme will be jeopardised by the £63.5 million Melton Mowbray Distributor Road (MMDR), which has now been given full government and local authority funding to funnel traffic to the east of the town.
Crucially for the society the route would cut across the old line of the canal although the county council said this week it was sympathetic to the aims of the society and would work with the group to find a solution.
Chairman Mick Clowes told the Melton Times: “According to the plans, it will cross the B676, the Oakham Canal and the River Eye all together at the Lag Lane Junction.
“The whole area will become roundabout number five of the scheme so the line of the canal is now under threat.”
Once it became clear that Leicestershire County Council had opted for the 7km MMDR to pass to the east of Melton, connecting the A606 Nottingham Road to the A606 Burton Road, with roundabouts developed at Scalford Road, Melton Spinney Road, A607 Thorpe Road and B676 Saxby Road, the waterways society commissioned an engineering survey from the Honorary Consultant Engineers from the Inland Waterways Association, Britain’s premier waterway association and the only one with a voice in Parliament.
Mr Clowes said the survey mooted a navigable culvert to be built at the B676 intersection between the proposed MMDR and the old Oakham Canal line which would allow the old waterway route to be ressurected.
But the society has since been told by the council’s highways engineers that it would be too expensive for them to move power lines and shift the line of the River Eye to enable the Oakham Canal link to be retained.
Members want those who agree with their plans to restore the canal to lobby local councillors and make their voices heard when public meetings are held to debate the planned route of the MMDR this year.
They believe the restoration would be a huge boost to the area, in terms of the leisure amenity, economic benefits, conservation projects and as an education resource.
“This summer will see many public meetings laying out the road proposals and we urge people to attend and have their say, said Mr Clowes.
“Likewise, when the planning applications go in for the bypass, we would ask them to write in and make their voices heard, both with the authorities and the local MP.”
Mr Clowes added; “No-one doubts that Melton could do with less traffic, and who is to say that the Oakham Canal would ever be fully restored in a lifetime, but the road planners should feel morally obliged to give it that shot at immortality.
“Once it is gone, it’s gone forever, so what price history?”
A County Hall spokesperson said: “We’re very aware of the concerns raised by the society and we’ve met with them to understand their expectations as we remain sympathetic to the aims of the group.
“While a bridge would not be provided over the old line of the canal as part of the plans, we talked through possible options to support the society’s work, such as a footpath crossing point, and these discussions will continue.
“The relief road has been widely welcomed as it will provide a major boost to the town’s economy by alleviating long-standing traffic congestion and there will be further measures to improve public transport and create walking and cycling routes.”