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 consider it.

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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 in China.

The Inch Cape project is owned by Red Rock Power, a subsidiary of China’s largest state-owned investment fund, the State Development & Investment Corporation (SDIC).

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.

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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 plan.

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.

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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 from ministers.

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 Government ministers. 

"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 local democracy.

“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."

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The decision to call in the application was criticised by Labour-led East Lothian Council.

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 Chinese firm.

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.

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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.”

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Ian Johnson, Inch Cape Offshore Limited project manager, said: “This is not uncommon for a project with such national economic and environmental importance.

“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.”