MILLIONS of pounds were earmarked last week for a flood defence scheme to protect hundreds of home in two flood-hit communities.

Rising costs for new measures along the River Gaunless, near Bishop Auckland, have meant an extra wait for families in South Church and West Auckland, where hundreds of homes were washed out following torrential storms more than two years ago.

Poor ground conditions, which require extra reinforcement work, have pushed up costs from £4.5m to £7.8m and delayed the scheme by several months.

But the Northumbria Regional Flood Defence Committee has put residents' minds at rest by agreeing to spend the extra cash on the vital scheme. Now that the committee has approved the project it falls to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to give the final go-ahead.

The extra funds will be collected via an increase in the levy collected through council tax to bring in £7.5m and the rest should be made up mainly of grants from Defra.

Committee chairman Jo Turnbull said: "I am pleased that members of my committee have identified the need to continue the excellent work already done to help protect people, their homes and businesses from the threat of flooding."

South Church resident David Elliott, a member of the flood action committee, said people in the area will be relieved that the work can now go ahead.

He said: "It is a huge relief to know the committee realises how important it is that the work is done to protect our homes.

"We are all at risk here. There have been several near misses since the flood of June 2000 and it could happen again at any time. Our homes are insured on the basis that these defences will be built and the delays were very worrying. Now we just want the measures to be built as soon as possible."

Work was originally delayed because of access restrictions imposed during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The increased cost further delayed the scheme as work should have started in early October, although the committee still aims to complete the work as soon as possible.