Sturgeon facing Holyrood grilling over China planning row – Herald

 

Tom Gordon Scottish Political Editor

NICOLA Sturgeon is facing a quiz from MSPs about why her ministers took
control of a Chinese-backed planning application on the eve of her meeting
its fanciers in Beijing.

The First Minister will appear before the conveners of Holyrood’s
committees on Wednesday, a 90-minute session when she can be asked about
any aspect of government policy.

She faces questions on why SNP ministers “called in” a planning issue
important to China’s State Development & Investment Corporation (SDIC) the
day before she met its bosses.

The move means ministers will now decide on whether to approve a new
national grid connection for an SDIC-funded offshore wind farm at the
former Cockenzie power plant.

Scottish Labour have also called for an urgent parliamentary statement on
the issue after Holyrood returns from recess next week, while Ms Sturgeon
could face a second round of questions at FMQs on Thursday.

After Scottish ministers used their call-in powers over Donald Trump’s
Aberdeenshire golf course in 2008 it bogged Alex Salmond down in
controversy for months.

East Lothian Council bought the power plant site in March from
ScottishPower, and had hoped to redevelop it as part of an economic
development strategy for the county.

The proposal by Inch Cape Offshore Ltd, part of SDIC-subsidiary Red Rock
Power, to build a substation dubbed a “giant shed” at the site could
scupper that redevelopment.

East Lothian councillors had not even had a chance to consider the
substation plan before ministers called in the application on the grounds
of “national importance” on Monday.

It was only the tenth call-in in a decade made in advance of a decision by
the local authority.

Opposition parties have accused the SNP government of trampling on local
democracy and questioned whether the decision was related to the First
Minister’s presence in China.

The Scottish Government insist there was no link between the call-in, which
was set in motion by housing minister Kevin Stewart on April 4, and Ms
Sturgeon’s visit to China.

The government also said the issue was not discussed when the First
Minister met the SDIC on Tuesday, the day after the call-in was formally
executed.

However, in another coincidence, Ms Sturgeon is due to make one of her
twice-yearly appearances before Holyrood’s committee conveners this week.

The session would allow Tory MSP Gordon Lindhurst, the convener of the
Economy committee, which deals with energy issues, to ask about the Chinese
project.

Tory Edward Mountain, convener of the rural committee, and Labour’s Jenny
Marra, convener of public audit, could also try to use their briefs to ask
questions.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon said: “SNP ministers need to urgently explain this
disgraceful move to block local people from taking part in a planning
decision. This is just another power grab from a SNP government that treats
local democracy with disdain.

“In the same week Nicola Sturgeon met the SDIC, a planning application by
its subsidiary company was snatched out of the hands of East Lothian
Council so that her planning Minister could make the decision.

“It speaks volumes about a government that only wants power for itself –
not for local people and is more interested in cosying up to Chinese
investors than the rights of local communities.”

SNP MSP James Dornan: “As so often, Labour resort to smear and innuendo in
the absence of hard facts to support them. If they are alleging any
wrongdoing then they should state unequivocally and specifically what they
believe that is – in short, put up or shut up.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We fully recognise the importance
of local decision making and Ministers use powers of call-in for planning
applications very rarely.

“Cockenzie is an important energy hub which offers significant
opportunities for renewable energy-related investment in the area. The
application was called in by the Planning Minister because the National
Planning Framework is very clear about the strategic importance of this
site, allocating it as an area where the land use should be co-ordinated.
It also includes two national developments for energy generation and grid
connections.

“The National Planning Framework was published following widespread public
engagement and it was considered by four parliamentary committees prior to
its adoption in 2014.

“There is absolutely no connection between the decision to call in the
Inchcape Planning Application and the First Minister’s visit to China.”

Christine Grahame, the SNP chair of the Conveners’ Group, said: “This
session is not about political theatre. It is an important mechanism
through which Parliament can hold the Government to account and I expect
Conveners will make full use of the opportunity.”

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