Nobody seems entirely sure exactly how much more land Hong Kong needs to address its serious housing shortfall. Various numbers of hectares have been quoted, but immediately challenged as being inadequate. So let’s just take as our starting position that we need to find a hell of a lot more developable land.
In one way, that may seem to make the job of the Task Force on Land Supply extremely challenging. But paradoxically in another way it could help to simplify identifying the best ways forward. For there are really only two acceptable ways to make land available on the scale required: they are new reclamation; and developing the extensive areas of agricultural land in the New Territories.
First the background. Our housing situation is desperate, some aspects even scandalous. We have tens of thousands of people crammed into tiny subdivided units, some in industrial buildings. Meanwhile our property developers are putting flats as small as 200 square feet or even less on the market. Both scenarios are completely unacceptable in a civilised society, we are simply storing up social and mental health issues for the future. To address the situation the chief executive appointed a task force of 22 non-officials and eight officials to examine options. Their term runs for 18 months up to February next year.
Anything involving town planning and land use is always bound to stoke controversy, but I think the task force has to some extent already made a rod for its own back by the way it has identified potential options. First, instead of focussing on proposals to create new land or unlock the potential of vacant land it has identified several headline grabbing ideas for taking away land from its existing users. Secondly, even in that aspect it has failed to distinguish properly between legitimate and illegitimate existing uses.
For example, our country parks are the crown jewels of Hong Kong and we need more outlets for healthy sports and exercise, not fewer. So why are we even talking of building in the parks and taking back land from sports clubs? On the other hand, activities like car parking or car repair or container storage – anything that could be conducted equally well in a high rise development – should not be allowed to sprawl willy-nilly over vast areas of land as they do at present.
But once the genie has been let out of the bottle so to speak – and the tone and content of discussion on local call-in radio shows rather suggests it has – it is very difficult if not impossible to corral it back in. As a matter of urgency, the task force needs to drag public attention back to identifying areas for possible reclamation, and reasonable ways to unlock the potential of the agriculture lots, rather than wasting time and energy on options that create or intensify disharmony in the community. Unless members get the two big ones right, everything else will just be nibbling at the edges and a PR show, rather than a serious attempt to address the problem.
There are several reclamation options worth exploring which would have minimal adverse impact on the environment. Some are to the south and east of Hong Kong, one – first proposed a generation ago by Gordon Wu – is to the east of Lantau. Note to some Legco Members: just because an idea was first put forward or endorsed by former chief executive Leung Chun Ying, who you don’t like, does not make it ipso facto wrong.
All options would cost money and take time, but we have the money and we shouldn’t waste any more time. Pick the most promising one and go for it.
Making better use of land in the New Territories might cost a bit less and produce developable land more quickly, but the process is not without pitfalls. The problems here are political rather than environmental or engineering ones. As Exco convenor Bernard Chan hinted in a column in this newspaper recently, for best and quickest results we really need to do this with the active cooperation of our major property developers who have scooped up millions of square feet of agricultural land. The reflex response to any suggestion which might bring further benefit to these parties is to shy away for fear of cries of collusion. So the administration will need to tiptoe carefully and be completely transparent.
We should start by proactively identifying locations for several smaller scale new towns. The government should make it clear these are going to proceed, using resumption powers if necessary, but then publically invite proposals from developers who own all or a significant portion of the layout to go into joint venture. After investigation and study, it could specify what basic infrastructure was required and how much the public purse would pay for it, what proportion of completed units would be taken back as public rental housing and HOS and how much would be paid for them, and what proportion of the site they could develop for private housing and what premium would be payable. The important thing is that everything would be completely in the open.
Given that the developers might be shy in coming forward, the big stick of resumption would always be in our back pocket and brandished from time to time if necessary. (And it would always be necessary to resume parcels of land within the total layout not owned by the developer anyway) The most urgent thing is to get started on real solutions.