FLOOD victims in Pickering have been dealt a cruel blow by Environment Agency bosses who admitted the badly hit town was 'low down on their list of priorities' for defence work.

At an open day held yesterday, residents gathered at the Memorial Hall to tell of their experiences in the recent deluge which devastated homes and businesses.

Campaigners from the Pickering Flood Defence Group even barricaded the historic building with sandbags to drive home the message in their fight for a £6.7 million flood defence scheme to protect the town.

Hundreds of residents gathered to talk with officials and view the plans for flood defences which have been designed but for which funding has not been secured.

Steve Wragg, from the Environment Agency's flood risk management team, said even though residents in the area were one of the worse hit in the county, any defences for the town would be 'years away'.

He said: "There is a scheme in place, which we are here today to try and promote to the people of Pickering but unfortunately funding is the big issue.

"Pickering is way down on the list of our priorities and I have to tell people that, which isn't easy.

"We have to apply for our funds from central government and there are other parts of North Yorkshire which are in more urgent need of defences.

"In Pickering 60 properties were flooded. In Selby 3,000 properties were affected and this is what we are up against. We have promoted this scheme in the past and it failed to get planning permission. Unfortunately, any flood defences in Pickering will be years away.

"However, we are working with Ryedale District Council who have put forward £1 million and we have to find other ways of funding the scheme."

In 2002 the same flood defence scheme, which was designed at a cost of £750,000, was refused planning permission after concerns were raised about the impact it would have on the historical character of the town.

A pot of money had been set aside by central government but by the time any decision was reached the money had dried up.

Now campaigners from the town are demanding funding for the scheme and hundreds of signatures have been added to a petition to protect Pickering, backed by the Gazette & Herald.

Spokesman for the Pickering Flood Defence Group and leader of Ryedale's Liberal Democrats, Howard Keal, said: "Unfounded concerns were raised in the past about how the flood defences would fit into the street scene of the town after the floods in 2000. While this was ongoing the goalposts were moved by central government leaving the people of Pickering in the lurch.

"It was put on the table and then snatched away by central government.

It was a case of now you see it, now you don't and now you're stuffed."

Officials from Ryedale District Council, North Yorkshire County Council's Highways department as well as Environment Agency officials were on hand yesterday to listen to the experiences of flood victims as part of the informal drop-in day, which was held from 2pm to 8pm.

Ross and Kayleigh Richardson, with their four-month-old son, Freddie, told officials how they were trapped by flood water in their Southgate home for 14 hours. They said they wanted a better warning by officials in the future.

Ross said: "We came down here wanting to know more about these proposed flood defences. There is a lot of talk about this scheme but we are really in the dark about something that has such a huge impact on the town.

"Floods are getting more and more frequent and action needs to be taken to protect Pickering because the situation is only going to get worse."

Residents hit by the recent flooding are being reminded that they can apply for a share of the £10,000 fund set up to help those suffering severe hardship.

Ryedale District Council and Pickering and District Rotary Club have joined forces to offer the cash to those in most need. Anyone wanting to register for appeal funds should ring 01751 460313.