NEWS that Pickering's long-awaited flood defence scheme could be years away stunned the town yesterday.

It was revealed at the town council's monthly meeting that the £6.7 million scheme currently scores only five points but would need a massive 31 to be considered for the Environment Agency's capital programme for defence schemes.

Shadow Floods Defence Minister Anne McIntosh, who went on a factfinding visit last Saturday meeting residents whose businesses and homes had been hit by the floods last month, said: "Pickering lays claim to being the most forgotten area substantially hit by the floods and the residents feel very neglected. '' She said she would seeking an early meeting with Flood Defence Minister Phil Woolas asking for priority to be given to the Pickering scheme despite the agency's low ranking. She is also making representations to John Healey, the Minister for Flood Recovery.

"I shall argue that the Pickering scheme, like that at Thirsk, would bring huge and direct benefits and immediate relief from further flooding to the town."

Coun Howard Keal, a senior Ryedale District Council member and spokesman for the Pickering Flood Defence Group, said the agency's low rating for Pickering brought the whole scoring system into disrepute.

He said that a planned review by the environment agency of its capital programme for flood defence schemes must take account of the fact that businesses and homes in Pickering's historic centre had been devastated by floods six times since 1999.

Coun Keal said urban areas were taking greater priority over rural areas in the points scoring race where, because of the higher volumes of property and people, they were given more points.

"The rating system should be dumped into the skips where so many people have had to throw their furniture and belongings damaged by the floods.

"There is no way it is either right or reasonable that a viable scheme, drawn up at public expense at a cost of £700,000, should be allowed to gather dust on the shelf when it is all ready to be put into action.

''It is an act of ineptitude by the Government and the Environment Agency."

The scheme has been on the drawing board for five years. .

But on Monday night, the town council was told by Tomasin Turner, the agency's Dales area flood risk manager, that Pickering's score was only five points and at least 31 points would be needed to get it into the programme because of other schemes elsewhere in Yorkshire and Humber where there had been severe flooding problems.

However, said Ms Turner, there was to be a review of the agency's capital programme for flood defence work.

But she added: "I don't expect it to change radically because the point system doesn't favour Pickering."

She told councillors and a council chamber packed with worried residents that 70mm of rain had fallen in Pickering over 24 hours on June 25.

"The levels were higher than in the 2000 floods, " she said. "We have been building up a huge collection of data because we need to learn from this."

Coun Natalie Warriner said the people of Pickering had suffered severely in the recent floods and the Environment Agency needed to be more innovative in its approach to getting the flood defence work underway and to use flood wardens to alert those most at risk.

Coun Warriner said the Floods Recovery Minister, John Healey, still had £2 million which had not yet been allocated for the work and she urged that the money be put towards Pickering's flood defence scheme.

Meanwhile, Pickering's County Councillor, Greg White, is today (Wednesday) to press North Yorkshire County Council to make money available for a flood alleviation scheme in the town.