Tom Gordon Scottish Political Editor
NICOLA Sturgeon is at the centre of a planning row after SNP ministers
intervened in a controversial application backed by the Chinese government.
Scottish ministers “called in” plans related to the Inch Cape Offshore Wind
farm on Monday, the same day the First Minister began a week-long trade
visit to China.
Ms Sturgeon also met the project’s financiers on Tuesday in China.
The call-in decision, justified as the matter was “potentially of national
importance”, was taken before the local authority even had a chance to
Scottish ministers will now decide the fate of the proposal instead.
Only nine other applications have been called in before a local decision in
the past decade.
Scottish Labour called the intervention “a disgrace”.
The government insisted there was “no connection” to Ms Sturgeon’s presence
The Inch Cape project is owned by Red Rock Power, a subsidiary of China’s
largest state-owned investment fund, the State Development & Investment
It plans to site 72 turbines up to 300m tall around 15km off the Angus
coastline, and send the electricity from them to the national grid via a
substation in East Lothian.
The planning application, by Inch Cape Offshore Limited, is to create the
substation and associated cable infrastructure at the council-owned former
Cockenzie power plant.
East Lothian Council bought the site from ScottishPower last month and had
planned to market it for commercial use as key part of its local economic
However that is threatened by the substation, which the local community
council has branded a “giant shed” which would be remotely controlled and
not provide local jobs.
There is also a rival community proposal to use the site for cruise ships.
Ms Sturgeon met SDIC in Beijing on Tuesday (UK time), according to the
official Scotish Government blog about her visit.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The planning application was not
raised or discussed during the First Minister’s meeting with SDIC.”
The Scottish Government also used its call in powers in 2008 over Donald
Trump’s £1bn golf course in Aberdeenshire after Alex Salmond discussed the
matter with Mr Trump.
A Holyrood inquiry concluded Mr Salmond had been “cavalier” and shown
“exceptionally poor judgment” in his dealings with the future US President.
Ms Sturgeon opened Red Rock Power’s new officers in Edinburgh in 2016,
saying SDIC’s presence was “a vote of confidence in our renewables sector”.
She added: “We are committed to working closely with SDIC to support their
investments in Scotland. I hope this marks the start of a new and
successful chapter for both SDIC and Scotland’s renewables sector.”
Six months later, after an appeal by the Scottish Government, the Court of
Session gave the green light to the Inch Cape project, by overturning a
judicial review by the RSPB against it.
Iain Gray, the Labour MSP for East Lothian, said he wanted an explanation
He said: “This decision is a disgrace. I have spent years arguing that
local planning decisions must be taken in East Lothian, not by Scottish
“I am very concerned that ministers have chosen to remove this decision
from our local representatives. The Cockenzie site is critical for local
job creation and that could be jeopardised by the placing of a substation
right in the middle of it.
“I will be seeking an explanation from ministers as to why they have taken
it out of the hands of the council and the community and why this has
occurred just now while the First Minister is in China.
“This looks like another public relations mess the First Minister has got
herself into trying to engage with Chinese business.
“We now know the Nicola Sturgeon met the SDIC the same week her Planning
Minister removed a planning application by their subsidiary Red Rock from
East Lothian Council so the government could decide itself.
“Whether this sequence of events was intentional or coincidental, the SNP
government should not be overstepping the boundaries of local democracy and
centralising decisions ahead of democratically elected local councillors.”
Tory local government spokesman Alexander Stewart said: “This is an
outrageous move from the Scottish Government and completely tramples over
“We’ve gotten used to this SNP Government ignoring the decisions of locally
elected councillors, but to bypass them before they’ve even taken a vote on
it is a new low.
“The fact that this decision was taken while Nicola Sturgeon was in China
will undoubtedly raise eyebrows, and they need to explain why this
announcement was made now.”
LibDem MSP Liam McArthur said: “It’s important that the Scottish Government
avoid giving the impression that they are kowtowing to Chinese special
interests at the expense of local people in East Lothian.
“To put this issue to bed the First Minister should make clear precisely
what it was she discussed with the State Development Investment Corporation.”
The decision to call in the application was criticised by Labour-led East
Acting council leader Norman Hampshire said: “It is disappointing that such
a key decision has been taken out of the hands of the local authority –
particularly as the council now owns the former Cockenzie Power Station site.”
Local Tory councillor Lachlan Bruce said: “This is a ridiculous decision by
the Scottish Government this application should be getting decided locally.
“The First Minister and the SNP government are putting her relationship
with the Chinese Government before the economic future of Prestonpans,
Cockenzie & Port Seton and the rest of East Lothian.”
Ms Sturgeon’s previous dealings with China saw her embroiled in the
so-called “Scottish shambles”, when she and her ministers were suckered by
a bogus £10bn investment deal.
Economy Secretary Keith Brown apologised to MSPs after the First Minister
signed a memorandum of understanding with SinoFortone and a state-backed
Sinfortone said it would invest up to £10bn in projects in Scotland, but a
series of promised deals across the UK failed to materialise, and its sole
UK asset turned out to be a pub.
Dubbed the Scottish shambles in China, the deal collapsed in August 2016.
A Scottish Government spokesman: “There is absolutely no connection between
the decision to call in the Inchcape Planning Application and the First
Minister’s visit to China and any suggestion otherwise is wrong.
“The development is in an area covered by the National Planning Framework
and raised issues that require to be considered by Ministers.
“The decision was taken by the Planning Minister, Kevin Stewart on the 4th
April and actioned by planning officials on 9th April.
“The First Minister is not meeting with Red Rock Power whilst in China.
“As set out in the First Minister’s China blog, the FM met with the State
Development Investment Corporation (SDIC) during her visit to China and the
issue was not discussed.”
Ian Johnson, Inch Cape Offshore Limited project manager, said: “This is not
uncommon for a project with such national economic and environmental
“If successful, the project will help achieve the Scottish Government’s
goals to minimise our reliance on carbon energy but also act as a positive
catalyst in the local area as it continues to go through a period of change
following the closure of the power station.
“By working with the local community and relevant stakeholders, we believe
we can ensure these goals and benefits are realised.”