• Sir David Murray is behind plans to create the 'garden district'
Jim Mackinnon helped launch a week-long consultation to promote the scheme which would see 600 acres of green belt land at the end of the M8 near Edinburgh airport become home to a huge new "garden district".
The development is expected to meet sufficient opposition to trigger a public inquiry. In such an event, Mr Mackinnon would be expected to play a key role in deciding whether or not the development gets the final go-ahead.
The Scottish Government has now been asked to investigate his involvement with the project after it emerged Mr Mackinnon gave the address at a 400,000 week-long consultation event paid for by Murray Estates, the property firm run by the tycoon, above. Speaking at the event, Mr Mackinnon, who was invited to attend by Sir David's company, insisted he was not endorsing the project.
But he said Sir David had told him he wanted it to be his "lasting legacy", adding that he felt it would "have a wider resonance than just Edinburgh". Mr Mackinnon also praised Sir David's "passion and sincerity".
David McLetchie, the local Conservative MSP for the vast site, at Hermiston, described Mr Mackinnon's involvement with the firm's consultation as "unwise and inappropriate" and has asked the Scottish Government to investigate.
Jim Lowrie, planning convener at Edinburgh City Council, which has urged elected members not to take part in the consultation process, described Mr Mackinnon's involvement as "very unusual".
His involvement was also questioned by planning expert David Bell, who described it as "a bit unusual", while leading architect Malcolm Fraser said that he could understand Mr McLetchie's concerns.
Government officials admitted last night that Mr Mackinnon had given similar speeches at two other planning "charrettes" which developers are being encouraged to stage to widen consultation on big developments.
Murray Estates hired space at Heriot-Watt University, Murrayfield Stadium and Edinburgh College of Art to promote the development at various events over the last week.Mr Mackinnon accepted an invitation to give a keynote speech at the university to kick off a week of architectural presentations and design workshops.
The Scotsman can reveal Mr Mackinnon also personally met Sir David and his team of advisers to discuss the development, which would involve the creation of 3,500 homes, a new horticultural garden attraction and a 25,000-capacity sports arena which could be used by both Edinburgh Rugby and Hearts.
Sir David snapped up more than 600 acres of land at Hermiston in 1989 as a long-term investment. His company has spent more than two years drawing up plans for the scheme.
The centrepiece of the development - dubbed Edinburgh's Garden District - would be a visitor attraction boasting a string of themed gardens, water features, and educational and research facilities.
During the public address, Mr Mackinnon said he had first been approached about Sir David's development well over a year ago and met the businessman, his advisers and representatives of Scottish Enterprise and the city council earlier this year.
He said: "I was very impressed with the passion and sincerity with which Sir David spoke and his determination to carry out a development that would leave a lasting legacy. I tend to think that the proposals have a wider resonance than just Edinburgh."
Mr Mackinnon added: "For the avoidance of any doubt, I am not here to endorse this project. It is an exciting development, but there are statutory procedures to be followed before any decision is taken. I am, however, more than happy to endorse an enlightened approach to public engagement and involvement."
Mr McLetchie has demanded John Swinney, the minister responsible for planning and development, investigate the "propriety" of his chief planner.
In his letter to Mr Swinney, the Edinburgh Pentlands MSP said: "It is highly likely that such applications will find their way to a Scottish Government minister for a final decision, on which a minister would no doubt be advised by the chief planner. In these circumstances, I question the propriety of Mr Mackinnon's attendance at this event, however circumspect he was in the content of his address."
Mr McLetchie told The Scotsman: "I don't think it was a very good idea for the minister's principal adviser to be heading up a consultation process in this way, when this is clearly a major development which will create a whole new urban sprawl on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It was unwise and inappropriate."
Cllr Lowrie said: "There has been a lot of discussion within the council about Jim Mackinnon's involvement in this and it does seem very unusual. It does make it appear as if the development is being supported by the Establishment.
"People living in the west of the city are already very anxious about losing such a large part of the green belt.But, as councillors, we have been instructed not to take part in any part of the consultation process, including any workshops."
David Bell, director of planning in Scotland at leading estate agents Jones Lang Lasalle, said: "All officials need to treat each proposal on its merits and remain impartial at all times. This does seem a bit unusual when it is an event organised to promote a specific development."
A spokesman for the city council said: "The head of planning, John Bury, has reminded councillors of their responsibilities under the code of conduct."
Leading Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser said: "I can understand completely why people like David McLetchie are concerned about the involvement of the chief planner with this development, and (his] talking about Sir David Murray's legacy when it goes entirely against the city council's structure plan for the city and should be determined by the local authority."
But a spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "It was entirely right and appropriate for the chief planner to attend this event - he was absolutely clear that he was not present to endorse or support the project in any way.
"He received no payment and made completely clear he was purely there to provide advice on the process of public engagement."
Jestyn Davies, managing director of Murray Estates, said: "We are simply trying to get people to talk to us about the development and the future growth of Edinburgh."
Scotland's chief planner Jim Mackinnon was involved in the aftermath of Donald Trump's Aberdeenshire golf and housing project being thrown out by councillors.
First Minister Alex Salmond intervened days after the 750 million scheme was rejected and agreed to meet the tycoon's representatives.
After Mr Salmond called the planning official for advice, the Trump team secured a meeting with Mr Mackinnon the following day.
Within hours, the Trump scheme had been called in by finance secretary John Swinney, who ordered that a public inquiry be held. The scheme was later approved by the government.
A Holyrood committee inquiry rebuked Mr Salmond for his "cavalier" attitude to the development and said he had shown "exceptionally poor judgment".