HUNDREDS of families in two flood-hit communities face an agonising wait for a scheme to protect their homes.

A flood defence scheme to protect the County Durham villages has been delayed because the estimated £4.5m cost has risen to £7.8m.

Homes in South Church and West Auckland, both near Bishop Auckland, were severely flooded when the River Gaunless broke its banks two years ago.

The Environment Agency gave high priority to a plan of measures to prevent similar scenes occuring in the future.

But work on the scheme, which was expected to start in early October, has now been put back to after the New Year as the Agency has to secure the extra cash.

The increased cost is mainly due to poor ground conditions which require extra reinforcement work to be done.

Flood defence manager Peter Kerr said: "The increased cost of the scheme means it will need further approvals from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Agency Board and the Northumbria Regional Flood Defence Committee.

"However, we are confident that these will be in place to begin work on the site in the New Year. When completed, this scheme will provide a consistent high level of protection for the whole community."

This is the second setback for the project, which also had to cope with access restrictions imposed during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Wear Valley District councillor John Lethbridge, who represents Henknowle ward, said people in South Church are worried about the delay.

He said: "They suffered greatly during the 2000 floods and this extra delay is causing them more anguish. I have already been in touch with Derek Foster, Bishop Auckland MP, and hope the extra funding is secured soon."

MP Derek Foster said: "This delay is all down to costs so I have been talking with Defra, the Agency and the Regional Flood Defence Committee over the funding and will speak to Elliott Morley, the Government minister with responsibility for flood problems.

"I will continue to press the case to ensure that the additional funding is made available because the scheme is vital for South Church and West Auckland."

The scheme will consist of two parts - flood defence walls and embankments near both communities and a dam across the river at Spring Gardens to hold back flood waters upstream.

An environmental enhancement project will also take place while work is carried out which will create wetlands behind the dam to attract wildlife and install a multi-user route along the disused railway line.