All planning decisions, big or small, have a political element to them, because by definition someone is applying for permission to do something which is constrained by law. What is unique about the discussion on the proposal to develop part of Fanling Golf Course is that it is now entirely political in nature and the planning aspects have become almost irrelevant. Yet the outcome falls to be determined by the Town Planning Board.
Let me begin by stating that I do not play golf and am not a member of any golf club. I do not even watch the sport live on the course or on TV..
Despite the lack of a direct personal stake, I have objected formally to the draft Fanling/Sheung Shui Extension Area Outline Zoning Plan. I believe the government proposal is wrong for Hong Kong and against the community’s best interests. (Full disclosure: one of my wife’s companies is a paid consultant to the Hong Kong Golf Club. This article represents my personal opinion and she has not been involved in its preparation).
One of the first things I learned when I joined the government in 1980 was always to pay a site visit before making a decision. As an assistant district officer in the new territories, many proposals involving land use crossed my desk. Being new to the job and the district I wanted to see the situation for myself. Time after time I was to find that what seemed like a neat solution on paper was absolute nonsense once I was there looking directly at the scene with my own eyes. Conversely, what might seem strange on paper made perfect sense on the ground.
Accordingly when the Fanling housing proposal was first floated I went to look. It takes about 10 minutes for the neutral observer to see that the site is unique -- remarkable in its ambience, history and environment. We could build a hundred replacement golf courses elsewhere and landscape them lavishly but none of them could ever capture the full flavour of what we already have. Never mind the background (small privileged elite occupying a large area of land) history has given us a world class sporting facility – the only one we have in Hong Kong of this calibre, the equivalent of Wimbledon for tennis, Wembley for football, or Le Mans for motor racing. To destroy it would be an act of supreme folly, the equivalent of cutting off our noses to spite our own face.
On the sporting aspect, the scale of the present facility has enabled the golfing authorities to expand their outreach to the community and nurture local talents. Hong Kong now has world class athletes, both men and women golfers who have qualified for the most senior international events.
The history of the present proposal is very revealing. In 2018 the Task Force on Land Supply considered two options for using all or part of the golf course(s) for public housing. One was to take back the complete 172 hectares occupied by all three courses and build 13,200 units. The other was to take back a portion of just one of them, comprising 32 hectares and build 4,600 units. In 2022, the Advisory Council on the Environment (ACE) considered an Environmental Impact Assessment on the more limited option and did not approve it, listing out several serious reservations.
A wiser government would have paused at this point and reconsidered the whole scheme. But the previous administration was not notable for willingness to entertain second thoughts. Instead what we have before us is a recasting of the limited option, taking back 32 hectares, only nine of which will be used for housing, but potentially providing 12,000 housing units. Remarkable how the promise now is for almost as many flats as the full-bore option.
Meanwhile, membership of ACE was reviewed last year and several strong opponents of the scheme were dropped. The revised scheme was then submitted to the revamped ACE, but still could not get full endorsement. EPD subsequently approved the EIA subject to further action to reduce the impact on a small wooded area and reduce the number of trees to be felled. which may lead to a further reduction in the area of land for housing.
It is natural for proponents of a scheme to justify and defend it, but there surely comes a point at which it is just a face-saving effort by the officials concerned. An attempt is now being made to bring the Fanling housing plan under the ambit of Common Prosperity, and to claim it is a test of the government’s commitment to address our housing problems.
It is instructive what happened when the Heung Yee Kuk offered an alternative site for the 12,000 flats to spare the golf course. Within hours the idea was rejected. This is eerily reminiscent of 9 June 2019: a million people marched peacefully to urge the administration to think again on extradition and before they could all return home the government announced it would press ahead. We all know how that turned out.
Our housing problems such as subdivided units are extremely serious and we know the solution now: we must press ahead with the northern metropolis. The chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu recently announced the appointment of a project supremo to do so. Absolutely the right decision, and better late than never. I would have done so a year ago.
There may also be a geopolitical angle here. China and Saudi Arabia are getting closer to each other (both President XI Jinping and Lee have visited recently). The Saudis are bringing one prestigious golf tournament to Hong Kong and are known to be considering where in Asia to locate others. The world’s biggest company, Aramco, is known to be considering stock market options for a secondary listing. I doubt our competitors in these aspects have started by driving a bulldozer up the fairway.