GOVERNMENT ministers have dashed hopes of an early go-ahead for a vital flood defence scheme to protect a Ryedale town.

Following a trip to London by Pickering campaigners back in January, environment minister Phil Woolas has finally replied to the group.

In a letter, he said the market town, which was badly hit in last summer's devastating deluge, will be prioritised with other at risk areas across the country.

One of the residents who travelled to Whitehall to present a 4,500 strong petition to the floods minister was 90-year-old Topsy Clinch.

At the time she said they left optimistic that Mr Woolas would bring relief to the town which has been flooded six times in nine years.

Now the former theatre nurse fears she may be forced to leave the home she loves. She said: "I don't want to move but without defences being provided to protect us we will be flooded again and again. I can't understand why nothing is done. The Government is not thinking about the people it is leaving to suffer."

Her cottage was among 100 homes and business flooded just under a year ago leaving what campaigners estimate to be a £5million trail of damage in the town.

In the letter Mr Woolas said the Government would set aside £350m to protect vulnerable towns and cities but warned: "We have to be fair to all areas and there are many projects awaiting funding around the country, against which investment in Pickering will have to be prioritised.

"I fully appreciate the frustration of those in all areas at risk of flooding where there is no commitment at present to put publicly funded community measures in place to reduce risk.

"There is no intention to ignore or downgrade the awful problems that flooding has caused in Pickering, however the Government is under obligation to use taxpayer's money to maximise benefits nationally on an objective basis."

But campaigners have vowed to fight on. Gordon Clitheroe, chairman of the group, said the £6.7 million scheme of defences for Pickering is desperately needed.

He said: "Tens of millions of pounds have been made by the Government in VAT charged on repairs to flood damaged homes and businesses. They are making money out of people's misery."

Group spokesman Howard Keal said the Environment Agency is still using a points system to decide which communities will be protected.

He said: "It is just a front for rationing the provision of defences. This way they justify failing to do vital schemes that should go ahead.

"A raft of questions was raised by the response from Mr Woolas and the Environment Agency and we will be back when we have the answers."

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