Freedom Island

If the plan to undertake large scale reclamation to the east of Lantau is to get anywhere, the project badly needs a new name.

The whole idea got off to a bad start when then chief executive Leung Chun-ying introduced the scheme as the east Lantau Metropolis. At that time Leung was already politically unpopular, his personal brand was pretty toxic, so just about anything with his name on it was going to face opposition. But what kind of word is Metropolis anyway? It sounds like something from a Batman movie.

Current chief Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngoh revived the idea and made it the centerpiece of her recent policy address under the name of Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Personally, I quite like the idea of having a chief executive with vision, and the courage to say so out loud in public. But most Hong Kong people are a pretty cynical bunch and suspicious of anything which smacks of whimsy. They are in the same camp as former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who once famously said "Anybody having visions should consult a doctor". So a rough ride was pretty much guaranteed.

Putting the name issue aside for a moment, we need to look calmly at what the project involves and what are its advantages and disadvantages. Critics have zeroed in on three main issues: climate change will put all new reclamation at risk; the estimated cost will use up all of our fiscal reserves; the environmental implications are serious, marine habitat will be affected.

All three have an element of truth, which makes rebutting them outright hard, but closer scrutiny also suggests the actual situation is more nuanced and contrary views are also worth a hearing.

Take climate change: I have argued previously in this column that the whole world needs to take this subject much more seriously than it has up to now and take radical remedial action to address it. A rise in sea levels of just a metre would have serious consequences for several low lying countries and could lead to unmanageable migration flows. Substantial areas of Hong Kong – including much of the Central business district, and the airport for example – are only around five metres above sea level. We need to find remedies to protect our city, sure, but the proposed reclamation does not introduce a radical new problem, it just accentuates an existing one. Moreover, now we are aware of the problem, precautions can be taken in advance.

The effect on our fiscal reserves has also been overstated. Leaving aside that the true level of them is closer to two trillion dollars than the quoted one trillion if Exchange Fund surpluses are also factored in as they should be, the fact is the money is not going to be spent in one lump sum in a single year. The bill will be spread over several years during which more revenue will come in. So whether the final cost is the estimated $500 billion or more, we will be able to afford it, especially if revenues from selling off parts of the new island are also taken into account.

As regards the environment, there is nothing to suggest the area concerned has a particularly high ecological value. We need more land and provided proper mitigating measures are taken, reclamation is a reasonable way of securing it.

Now look at the advantages. We do have land in the New Territories which could and should be used but it is already spoken for by powerful vested interests. The big developers have bought up millions of square feet of agricultural land which they are happy to bring forward for development at a speed of their own choosing which maximizes profit. Attempts to force the pace are likely to be resisted by legal or other means: has everyone forgotten the armed assault on Legco when the government sought funding for the two modest development areas in the northern New Territories? The administration has suggested public private partnerships but already – without the terms of a single project being tabled for consideration – the cries of "collusion" ring out. Negotiations are never going to be simple, but the government’s hand would certainly be stronger if officials can point to upcoming reclamation as a viable alternative.

The brownfield sites are an obvious target, and there is a strong argument for giving them priority. But the very fact that they are in use already means grabbing them is not going to be quick or easy.

And not to be forgotten are the rural interests and their obsession with the small house policy. Yes, the so-called traditional rights are of very dubious validity and ripe for review, but political realities cannot be ignored. Obstruction is guaranteed.

Now contemplate an alternative scenario: the Finance Committee gives speedy approval to funds for the detailed feasibility studies. Firm conclusions are reached on how big the reclamation can be and how best to implement it. Free from topographical constraints, our planners and engineers prepare a beautiful layout for a garden city with plenty of open space and the full range of social facilities. Plot ratios are sensible, minimum flat sizes are specified. This is what all of Hong Kong should look like.

Contracts start to be awarded: the new land will take time to arrive but it is on the way. In parallel, the government starts to take on the developers and the brownfield occupiers with a strengthened hand. The lever of the upcoming reclamation is available to speed up development of the land already there. Free from the influence of the Heung Yee Kuk mafia and other vested interests, the government starts to reach reasonable deals which stand up to public scrutiny.

Lam needs to get the brand consultants to work on the new name for the project where we are free to build the kind of city we will all be proud to call home. My suggestion is "Freedom Island". Even the pan dems should like the sound of that.