Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Islington Council.

Councillors and Town Hall officers are warning that an “unprecedented period” of planning reform rolled out by the government will harm the borough’s attempts to reach a target of net zero in its carbon emissions.

Islington’s head of planning policy Sakiba Gurda was laying out for councillors the council’s attempts through its local plan to use the planning system to bring down carbon emissions. The borough is committed to attempt to hit net zero by 2030 having declared a climate emergency.

However, Islington Energy Evidence Base figures from 2017 presented by Gurda show that projected carbon savings from the decarbonisation of the borough’s electricity grid, the improved efficiency of new buildings, retrofitting of existing buildings and the decarbonisation of heat systems still leave Islington producing 50 kilotons of CO2 equivalent over net zero by 2050 short of “significant changes to national policy and legislation”.

Gurda said: “Our measures are applicable to things that need planning permission, but there has unfortunately been an extreme deregulation, which has been going on for very many years, but what happened last summer was very significant additional permitted development rights, including to develop or demolish a building without planning permission.

“In those cases we will not be able to apply policies fully and it will be very light touch. You cannot apply strict or rigorous standards, and in addition to this, in December 2020 the government proposed further extremely radical permitted development rights, whereby effectively almost any type of commercial development could change to residential without planning permission.

“What that means is that a lot of existing buildings would effectively go a couple of steps back, and you would need to retrofit them at some point in the future in order to achieve zero carbon.

“This is extremely radical, and I know we keep saying this is an unprecedented level of deregulation, but we have never seen this in the last however many decades. It is going to make our ambitions and our ability to achieve zero carbon much more difficult. There will be a lot happening outside of the normal planning process.”

Gurda’s report stressed that the significant increase in permitted development rights planned by government, allowing developers to move forward without planning permission with further significant rights already proposed, will “erode” the council’s ability to achieve net zero.

According to the planning policy chief, it would also leave the council staring down further increase costs to retrofit existing buildings, with the deregulation increasingly placing greater reliance on building control departments to secure energy efficiency measures, rather than planning systems.

The council is committed to ensuring all buildings in Islington will be net zero carbon by 2050, with the council’s climate and environment emergency declaration seeing it striving to achieve net zero carbon twenty years ahead of this target.

Cllr Phil Graham stressed the need for greater awareness of the effect of the “planned decimation” of planning law, adding: “I think it’s going to have a massive effect, but this is something that needs to get out. As councillors, public and officers, we need to make sure that people know, as there are not enough people aware of this.

“Anybody who wants to head towards zero carbon in the future needs to realise that if we don’t fight this all the way we are going to wind up taking massive steps backwards, because there just won’t be any point to what we’re doing.”

Gurda revealed that the council are going to make use of “light touch prior approval” with some development rights “in the most robust way,” and allow them to be tested on appeal.

The Town Hall is understood to now be lobbying the government over the plans, arguing they could have the further impact of “devastating the economy” if any development was allowed to be transformed into housing, potentially eroding commercial clusters in central London.

One card still held by the Town Hall, according to Gurda, would be so called ‘Article 4 directions,’ under which the council takes away permitted development rights from applicants introduced by national government, with a year’s notice required in order to avoid the borough paying compensation to developers for loss of profit.

Gurda went on to speak of her “worry” on this issue that national planning policy is also being proposed to set the bar for the use of Article 4 “much higher,” adding: “All the planning and legal tools that exist we will try and utilise them, but there must be lobbying and other routes in order to try and hopefully prevent some of the worst potential impacts of these deregulations.”

In a speech in June 2020 referenced in the government’s December consultation on supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “It sounds positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal. All I can say is that if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand.

“A government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people at a time of crisis… this is a government that is wholly committed not just to defeating coronavirus but to using this crisis finally to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.

“To build the homes, to fix the NHS, to tackle the skills crisis, to mend the indefensible gap in opportunity and productivity and connectivity between the regions of the UK. To unite and level up.

“To that end we will build build build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires.”