Scotland Election 2016

China deal advisor claims Sturgeon keen for work 'this year'

Nicola Sturgeon signing deal Image copyright Sinofortone
Image caption Sir Richard Heygate pictured with Nicola Sturgeon signing the memorandum of understanding at Bute House

The UK advisor to two Chinese firms which signed a memorandum of understanding with the Scottish government says talks have taken place over specific projects.

Nicola Sturgeon had insisted that no firm investment plans had been agreed.

Sir Richard Heygate said there were hopes for affordable housing projects totalling 5,000 homes in Edinburgh, Falkirk and Ayrshire worth £500m.

He said work backed by the "squeaky clean" firms could start "this year".

There was controversy over the investment memorandum with SinoFortone and China Railway No. 3 Engineering Group after it emerged Norway had blacklisted the railway group's parent firm over corruption fears.

Opposition parties also criticised the way information about information had "dripped" out, with the agreement only coming to light after it was reported in Chinese media.

Ms Sturgeon earlier insisted that the memorandum signed in March was only to "explore opportunities", saying there were "no actual proposals" on the table.

Speaking in Drumchapel on Friday, Ms Sturgeon repeated that there were "no specific projects agreed".

She told BBC Scotland: "We discussed areas where we are going to explore whether there are specific projects but there are no actual agreements for investment in any particular project at this time.

"If there are specific proposals for investment coming forward, they will go through normal due process and due diligence."

'Absolutely positive'

However, in an interview with BBC Radio Scotland, Mr Heygate said work could begin on some projects within a year.

Mr Heygate said the proposed housing development at Loudoun Castle in East Ayrshire includes a biomass power station, potentially worth another £300m.

He said a large railway project had been identified, which he was unable to give details of. He also said there had been talks about setting up a management team with the Scottish government, a major accountancy firm and local construction partners.

He did stress that the memorandum of understanding signed with the first minister in March was not legally binding, but said he considered her enthusiastic about a deal.

He said: "She was absolutely positive right from the start. We presented a number of particular projects in affordable housing, clean energy, developing new industrial parks and infrastructure, and she went straight for the ones which are most important.

"She said the two I want to focus on are affordable housing and clean energy. And I want to push those and I want to get moving, I don't want this to be another initiative which is just talked about and take forever, I want to get something moving this year."

Image copyright London Resort Company Holdings
Image caption SinoFortone is already involved with plans for the Hollywood-inspired London Paramount theme park

Asked about concerns about China Railway Group which led the Scottish Liberal Democrats to call for the deal to be "torn up", Mr Heygate insisted the firms would not be put off.

He said: "We could not be more squeaky clean in terms of backing from the very top of the Chinese state.

"I have no idea what this thing refers to, but the companies we're dealing with, you could not be more A*** in terms of backing, right up to the president of China.

"Saying we should tear something up which is not a legal agreement just sounds crazy to me, it's just jealously, political back-biting."

'Full publication'

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie called on Ms Sturgeon to release minutes of the meetings held with the Chinese firms.

He said there was a clear conflict between what Ms Sturgeon had said about the memorandum and the comments made by Mr Heygate.

Scottish Labour said Ms Sturgeon had "misled Scots" over the "secret deal with China".

Public services spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: "The fact that discussions have been going on for a year without SNP minister providing any detail is extraordinary.

"This deal stinks and it has done from the very beginning. It's time for the SNP to stop the ducking and diving - Nicola Sturgeon should order the full publication of all documents relating to this deal, going as far back as a year ago when talks first began."

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