Same land-use principles should apply to country park, golf course sites

In Hong Kong, reclamation, reallocation of existing land uses, and change of development intensity are the major tools to increase land supply to meet housing and other development needs. All these measures inevitably have a negative impact on the environment and nearby users. But it also has negative consequences on the community if the government is not proactive in meeting demand with well-planned development projects.

Take agricultural and green-belt land, which together account for more than one-fifth of Hong Kong’s land area, as an example. Because of market demand and other reasons, many such land sites have been either legally or illegally converted into other uses. Some of these land sites may be of high ecological value but have been used for low-value yet high-pollution operations such as car repair, garages, squatting, or other brownfield operations. The negative impact of such uses on the environment and neighboring residents is often much more severe than that of well-planned and effectively regulated developments, including housing.

Therefore, many professionals from the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape sector, including me, have been urging the government to comprehensively review the uses of the green-belt sites, abandoned agricultural land areas, country park fringe areas, etc, with objective studies being conducted to evaluate their ecological value and development potential. Land sites with relatively low ecological value but near built-up areas where transportation and community facilities are less costly and would take a relatively shorter time to improve should be used for housing or other currently much-needed developments. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government must take concrete actions to address people’s needs, as emphasized by President Xi Jinping in his July 1 keynote speech.

For sites with high ecological value and low development potential, the government should proactively conserve them by reclaiming the ownership through land resumption, non-in situ land exchanges with private owners, public-private partnerships, and provide the necessary facilities so that these areas are available for the enjoyment of more people, instead of being left vacant, idle and derelict.

Two recently well-publicized land use controversies could be a good indicator of how the government fares in handling land use. The two sites involved are similar in nature to an extent, but are treated quite differently by some individuals and concern groups.

The first case involves a proposal to develop a portion of the Fanling golf course for public housing. Around 2013, some political parties and environment concern groups demanded that the golf course be reclaimed for housing development to replace the government-proposed Northeast New Territories new development area project, which they strongly opposed. Upon the Task Force on Land Supply concluding its report titled “Striving for Multi-pronged Land Supply” in 2018, the government proposed taking back 32 hectares of the golf course for public housing. However, the recently completed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) suggests that because of the terrain of the golf course, the presence of a large number of ancient trees and ancestral tombs, and the limited room for improvement in the area’s transportation and infrastructure, only about 9 hectares of land can be used for building around 10,000 public housing units accommodating about 30,000 people.

The contents of the EIA caused quite a stir. Those who want to preserve the golf course, including individuals and business organizations, argue that the benefit of public housing development does not match its negative impact, and call for the entire project to be shelved. Those who support the housing project stress that Hong Kong’s housing shortage is so severe that the government should not bow to “the powerful” and “vested interests”. It’s reported that the Environmental Advisory Committee has to defer its decision on the EIA report pending further information.

The second controversy involves a proposal to tap a site on the fringe of the country park next to the Tai Lam Tunnel Toll Station for development. In 2017, the then-administration commissioned the Hong Kong Housing Society to conduct a feasibility study on two sites on the fringe of country parks for housing development. It was then noted that the Tai Lam site has good transportation access and low ecological value. It was estimated that about 35,000 public housing units could be built to house about 100,000 residents, reducing the average waiting time for public rental housing by about one year. However, the study was later halted by the succeeding administration before it was completed. Recently, some government officials raised again the proposal to tap the Tai Lam site for housing development.

Country parks now account for more than 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land area. Some people insist that “not a single square inch” of the country parks should be used for development, but many others believe that the size and coverage of country parks should be reduced, with fringe areas of low ecological value being used for housing or other developments. Subdivided-unit residents would no doubt support converting some country park areas into housing development so that the pressing housing needs of the grassroots people could be eased. It’s imperative that the government determines the priority of uses for those sites based on objective studies.

My position on these two cases is consistent. First, the housing problem in Hong Kong is very serious, and any development will inevitably have an impact on the environment, ecology, neighboring residents, and users. The government’s not taking action is not an option. Priority of uses must be determined promptly. Second, the decision on any development proposal must be based on objective, scientific and comprehensive professional studies by experts to confirm the costs and benefits, with the aim of meeting the pressing needs of the community and the long-term interests of Hong Kong.

To conclude, I support the government’s relaunching the study on the housing development option for the Tai Lam site. As for whether and how it will be developed in the end, the same principle applied in the proposal of developing the golf course land should be followed, i.e., the decision must be based on objective studies, and there must not be double standards.

The author is a member of the Legislative Council representing the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape Functional Constituency.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.