POWERS given to unelected council officials could be clipped in the wake of growing controversy over how a major £100m planning proposal for Spango Valley has been handled.

A move to curtail the scope for decision making on applications by officials before they are presented to elected members has gathered momentum amid concern about the democratic process.

Municipal Buildings officials unilaterally slashed by 40 per cent the number of houses that would be permitted to be built at the former IBM site, which is owned by businessmen Sandy and James Easdale.

There is now serious disquiet among members of a split planning board after the bus tycoons vowed to walk away if the reduction from their proposed 450 homes to 270 is allowed to stand.

Planning board member, Councillor Drew McKenzie, openly questioned during a debate on the application whether council officers presently have too much power.

He asked: "Is it not time that the whole delegated powers issue is looked at?"

Councillor McKenzie's intervention came after he complained that elected members had little time to properly assess lengthy documentation on the proposal before meeting to decide its fate.

He said: "The board has not been kept updated as things progressed.

"We received the papers not long before Christmas and this is very late to present papers to members."

Planning board convener, Councillor David Wilson, said that the matter of delegated powers to officials could be revisited by members following the council elections in May.

A move by Councillor Jim McEleny to amend the 270-home stipulation upwards to 420 dwellings — the maximum permitted for the whole of Spango Valley — was thrown out by council legal chiefs.

They say it would be contrary to the local development plan (LDP) because the Easdales only own part of the sprawling site and it would prevent any future housing on the other portion of land.

But Cllr McEleny has accused officials of being 'incompetent' by imposing the 270-home limit on the Easdales prior to effectively presenting the board with a take-it-or-leave it choice.

Board chair Cllr Wilson told the meeting that he felt he had enough time to digest the application documents but appeared to indicate that this was only because he had to cancel a trip abroad at Christmas.

He said: "Given that my trip to Portugal was aborted I had a lot of time on my hands over Christmas.

"It was not necessarily an easy read but I wouldn't expect that, but I felt I had enough time."

Former provost Robert Moran said: "I echo what Councillor McKenzie has said.

"I think very much that this [meeting] is premature.

"We have read in the Greenock Telegraph how the developer would pull out [because of the imposed reduction in house numbers] and this puts us under a lot of pressure.

"This should have been given more time and respect to look at it."

Mr Moran suggested a full members briefing and for the full council to sit as the planning board on the matter.

Councillor Wilson agreed that a full hearing would be 'significantly more democratic' but added that because the application had been recommended for approval, albeit with a large reduction in the number of dwellings, it was a matter that only the planning board could decide.

The board chose not to decide the application immediately and voted 5-4 in favour of a site visit and for officials to provide an updated briefing.

Easdale spokesman Jack Irvine said: "Sandy and James will be delighted to facilitate a site visit and we are delighted the councillors are taking the time to see the proposed development for themselves."