A CONTROVERSIAL proposal to build nearly 200 homes on the toxic former Ravenscraig Hospital site was yesterday approved by a whisker in a knife-edge determination.

Members of Inverclyde Planning Board voted 5-4 in favour of allowing Link Housing Ltd to develop the sprawling 83-acre grounds.

It's not yet known when work on the large development will begin.

The decision was made despite the district's most senior planning officer, Stuart Jamieson, admitting: "We don't know what the levels of contamination are on the site."

But Mr Jamieson — who recommended approval of the application subject to 33 planning conditions — insisted: "I am satisfied that the process we have set out within the recommendations is appropriate."

An audible whisper of 'stitch-up' was heard from the public gallery in the council chamber when Mr Jamieson said: "Clearly if the council's contaminated land officer was deeply concerned she'd be raising those concerns."

The Greenock Telegraph has revealed that Link — which stands to receive £14 million in public grant money from the development — bought the site for £1 in a so-called back-to-back deal involving the Scottish Government and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

We told last weekend how levels of cancer-causing contamination found from partial testing are eight-times above officially recognised acceptable maximums.

At yesterday's meeting Councillor Drew McKenzie called for a complete scientific report for the entire site before any final decision.

Mr McKenzie said: "We are being asked to approve an application for a piece of land that we don't know yet how contaminated it really is.

"I think the major thing here is trust from the local community.

"People are looking at this as a done deal.

"They see that the land was sold for £1 and they are looking at Link and they can see why they'd want to go with it.

"They see that this council wants it to happen and I think most of us round this table want it to happen, but there are these issues."

Cllr McKenzie pointed out documented health issues that have arisen following the development of contaminated brownfield sites elsewhere, such as Corby and Motherwell.

He said: "At Bishopton, locally, people are told not to eat their vegetables for the next ten years if they happen to grow them on their land.

"I think surely the right plan of action should be that once the site is cleared matters should come back to this committee with a scientific report, backed up by the contamination expert, and they can say, 'The land is clear, we're ready to go' and I'm sure they'll get the approval sought from us."

But planning chief Mr Jamieson insisted that the conditions attached to any approval were sufficient for a decision to be made now, stating: "It would not be appropriate to carry out further investigation and bring it back to the planning board."

He told the board: "Clearly further information is required, and those surveys have to take place before any development can take place.

"Mitigation must be to the satisfaction of the contaminated land officer."

Cllr Jim McEleny said he was 'assured' that the contamination issues would be 'dealt with' but raised concerns about further traffic problems in an already heavily congested part of Greenock.

He said: "That particular stretch of the road is just creaking at the moment, so I'm surprised and dismayed that there isn't a negative comment from Transport Scotland."

Cllr Colin Jackson looked to the 'positives' about the proposal.

He said: "There's a demand for this type of housing, it isn't a supply thing and just build it and see who comes along. These houses will be snapped up.

"There will be an economic benefit as well to shops and petrol stations."

Cllr Jim Clocherty agreed: "This is a development that, as a council, ticks a large number of boxes."

Cllr Innes Nelson — chairing the meeting in place of Cllr David Wilson who declared an interest as a housing association director — moved to approve the application.

Cllr McEleny tabled an amendment to refuse it on traffic grounds, stating: "I don't think turning that stretch of the A78 into a car park should go ahead."

Councillors Nelson, Jackson, McKenzie, Clocherty and Provost Martin Brennan voted for the application.

Councillors McEleny, John Crowther, Gerry Dorrian and Tommy McVey voted against it.