Opposition parties have accused the First Minister of putting the interests of a Chinese firm before local people in East Lothian where the development is earmarked for the site of the former Cockenzie power station.
The Scottish Government insisted there is no link between Ms Sturgeon’s meeting with China’s State Development and Investment Corporation (SDIC) on Tuesday and the move to relieve East Lothian Council of the final decision on whether the planned substation goes ahead.
Although planning decisions are often called in if they are deemed to be of national importance, it is highly unusual for such a move to be taken before the local council reaches its own decision on the issue.
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.
SDIC’s subsidiary, Red Rock Power Limited, is the owner of Inch Cape Offshore Limited, which is behind the Scottish application.
The firm plans to build 72 turbines up to 300m tall around 15km off the Angus coastline. Electricity from the turbines would be sent to the National Grid via a substation at the East Lothian site.
East Lothian Council had planned to market the site for commercial use in an effort to create jobs after buying the land from ScottishPower last month, but that ambition is now under threat.
The local Prestonpans Community Council has branded the proposed substation a “giant shed” and are instead pushing for the site to be turned into a cruise terminal.
Labour’s East Lothian MSP, Iain Gray, said: “My constituents can hardly be blamed for feeling that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP seem to care rather more about the interests and aspirations of a Chinese company than those of the communities of Cockenzie and Prestonpans.”
He added: “We now know the Nicola Sturgeon met the State Development Investment Corporation 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.”
East Lothian Council has also criticised the decision to call in the application.
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.”
Ms Sturgeon opened Red Rock’s Edinburgh offices in November 2016. She met with SDIC officials on Tuesday.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “There is absolutely no connection between the decision to call in the Inch Cape 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 4 April and actioned by planning officials on 9 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 First Minister met with the State Development Investment Corporation during her visit to China and the issue was not discussed.”
Inch Cape Offshore Limited project manager Ian Johnson 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.”
Ms Sturgeon’s visit has already seen her come under pressure over the issue of human rights in China, which she has raised with officials.
The latest row comes after a £10 billion investment deal between the Scottish Government and China collapsed 18 months ago following an outcry about the secrecy surrounding the deal. The two Chinese companies involved in the deal, SinoFortone and China Railway No 3 Engineering Group (CR3), withdrew from a memorandum of understanding they struck with Ms Sturgeon about investment in clean energy, transport and housing.
This new trade mission was widely viewed as an attempt to build bridges in the aftermath.
Political opponents last night stepped up the pressure on Ms Sturgeon to explain the timing.
Liberal Democrat energy spokesman 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.”
Tory council spokesman Alexander Stewart said: “This is an outrageous move from the Scottish Government and completely tramples over local democracy.”