Land Reform

The realities of Hong Kong’s land and housing supply situations require that the government take a radically different approach to land administration in the New Territories. The realities of Hong Kong’s constitutional and political situations require that no such revised approach can be implemented before next March at the earliest. Sadly, it may not be practicable even then.

We have recently been presented with a number of development decisions which make no sense in the context of a pressing need for land to build public housing. The case of Wang Chau in Yuen Long has been well publicised: a large area of flat formed serviced "brownfield" land, under the control of powerful local interests, is to be left alone for the foreseeable future while a smaller nearby site zoned for green belt is to be cleared and developed. The obvious thing to do is develop the larger brownfield site first, clear the non-indigenous villagers residing in the adjacent site into the public housing, leaving until later a decision on whether to also develop the smaller site or leave it as restored green belt.

In Tuen Mun, development of a site at Sun Hing Road which could have provided 8,000 public rental housing units has been drastically scaled back and will now provide only 1,500, while a private developer has been given approval to build a small number of luxury houses on part of the site. So much for giving priority to public housing.

In the last few days it has been revealed that a site in Shatin occupied by a new football facility – recently completed at a cost of $84 million including $63 million from the Jockey Club – is to be converted to public housing when the lease expires next year. With the paint at Kitchee’s new clubhouse barely dry, it is to be demolished. While the assurance that a replacement site will be found is welcome, the saga reeks of confusion.

Meanwhile vast areas of land in the New Territories perfectly capable of early development remain untouched. Much of this is agricultural land in the hands of the major property developers. The top four companies alone are hoarding over 100 million square feet of land which they will bring forward for development at a time which maximises their profits, not public good. Much of the rest is controlled by rural strongmen. The plain truth is land management in the NT has been lackadaisical for decades. Traditional villages occupied by farmers have been expanded by way of Village Extension Areas, where new homes are constructed and let out to tenants not at all connected with agriculture. The practice with both private and government land has been to put it to use first, then regularise (if necessary) later. So private agricultural land is turned over to other purposes and if the District Lands Office squawks the new use is covered by a Short Term Waiver. Government land not immediately required for development is supposed to be offered on Short Term Tenancy by public tender. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is just appropriated. Fencing off a small garden adjacent to a house may not raise major policy or enforcement issues so ex post facto regularisation can perhaps be tolerated. But what about when a larger area near an established village is converted into a carpark for residents, with fees collected (woe betide anyone who doesn’t pay) going into private pockets? What about cases where a fence around a private lot is stretched to "accidentally" embrace some government land as well?

One of the striking features of the Wang Chau case was the apparent need to consult and seek consensus. Now, I think we can all agree that consensus is a desirable thing. But where land is required for a public purpose it is not necessary to wait for all concerned to agree. The Executive Council can simply order resumption with appropriate compensation. What is so puzzling is the reluctance to exercise these powers even where the justification is overwhelming.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the politics of land. The composition of the Election Committee which will in March choose the next chief executive is heavily skewed in favour of property developers and rural interests. Of its 1200 members, the Heung Yee Kuk nominates 28 and the Agriculture and Fisheries Sector a further 60. While Real Estate and Construction in theory has only 18 representatives, it is well known that the conglomerates based on major developers control hundreds of the companies that vote in other sectors. The situation in Legco’s functional constituencies is similarly distorted. All potential chief executive candidates are well aware of where the balance of power lies.

The only question that remains is whether any candidate, once elected, would be prepared to take on these vested interests. Short of a hero, we could only really be sure of sensible land and housing policies when we get political reform.