Minister criticised for cancellations

Coastal defence campaigners rounded on a Government minister last night after he pulled out of a series of Norfolk meetings to avoid protesters.

Environment minister Elliot Morley was 30 seconds away from a photo opportunity with the media at Somerton, near Yarmouth, yesterday when the call came through to cancel.

His failure to turn up at pre-arranged meetings prompted claims that he was denying local voters the chance to tackle him on a key local issue - and that he simply lacked "the bottle" to confront his critics.

The man responsible for the deeply unpopular Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) - which controversially advocates changing the coastal erosion policy from hold-the-line to managed retreat - was in the area to launch Labour's rural manifesto.

Mr Morley had been set to meet reed cutters at a picturesque location at the edge of the Broads with Labour candidate for Yarmouth, Tony Wright.

However, just before he arrived, about 15 villagers - some of whom are members of the Countryside Alliance - and Malcolm Kerby, the prominent Coastal Action Group campaigner, turned up.

When Tory candidate Mark Fox also showed his face, Mr Wright made a telephone call and a ministerial car, seconds away from Somerton, made an abrupt U-turn.

The next meeting on the agenda, with Winterton villagers unhappy about the Government's coastal erosion plans, was also cancelled at last minute after protesters again showed up at the parish hall.

And after a quick face-to-face with selected members of the Winterton and Scratby protest groups at Labour's Yarmouth headquarters, Mr Morley was whisked away from the constituency.

Protesters were yesterday livid with the minister's refusal to meet with them. Mr Kerby said the minister had avoided people from Norfolk since the divisive SMP had been announced.

"We've gone into an era of sterile politics," he said. "Isn't it about taking the bric-bats as well as the congratulations?

"This is a travesty for democracy. The minister either didn't want to see us because he is utterly bereft of joined-up thinking or he's got absolutely no bottle. These people have to be answerable for their actions."

But Mr Wright said: "If I thought there was going to be a dialogue talking about the issues in a serious context I would have gone along with that.

"I've been in politics for a very long time and I know the signs. The event was going to be hijacked - I wanted the minister to meet members of the community but that was going to be restricted.

"I do think people have a right to protest, but some elements would have loved to see the minister jostled.

"If the minister would be under threat I'm not going to place him in that position.

"I'm highly disappointed but I've got nothing to be embarrassed about."

And speaking to the EDP later while touring Lowestoft, Mr Morley said: "I was running half-an-hour late, but it is fair to say the Countryside Alliance turned up with the local Conservative candidate.

"He associated himself with people more interested in abusing animals rather than allowing local people to talk about real issues in this area.

"The people of Winterton came and had the opportunity to talk to me at Tony Wright's headquarters. I'm glad they did."

Mr Fox denied any association with the Countryside Alliance protest. He said: "How can we have a democratic political debate if he refuses to come close to anyone who may have a different opinion?"

Simon Peasley, a protester from Somerton and member of the Countryside Alliance, said: "It's pathetic he's running away from less than 20 gentle villagers."