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January 8th, 2015:

Don’t sacrifice Hong Kong’s country parks for a housing quick fix

4 January 2015

Roger Nissim

The restarting of a regular land sale programme in 2013 after a 10-year hiatus is one of the real positive actions of the Leung Chun-ying administration as it struggles to plug the huge gap in housing supply. There is no quick fix for this situation. There is no such thing as “instant” flats and the public needs to understand it will probably take another four to five years before an equilibrium can be found between supply and demand.

I am, however, deeply concerned that, in their desire to find quick fixes for the shortage of land, both Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po and Secretary for Housing and Transport Anthony Cheung Bing-leung are starting to try to convince us that it is appropriate to consider rezoning green-belt sites and look at the possible use of land within country parks. These are both bad ideas and should not, as suggested by Cheung recently, be considered as one of the trade-offs necessary to achieve these short-term objectives.

Let us first consider green-belt sites. According to statutory outline zoning plans, the intention of this land-use zoning “is primarily for the conservation of the existing natural environment amid the built-up areas/at the urban fringe, to safeguard it from encroachment by urban-type development, and to provide additional outlets for passive recreational activities. There is a general presumption against development within this zone”.

Country parks are covered by the Country Parks Ordinance. The Country and Marine Parks Authority is mandated to “encourage their use and development for purposes of recreation and tourism”, “protect the vegetation and wildlife”, and “preserve and maintain building sites of historic and cultural significance”. There is a “presumption against any new development”.

Some 24 country parks have now been designated for the purpose of nature conservation, countryside recreation and outdoor education.

The wording here is unambiguous. It makes clear that these lands should be left alone to serve their existing statutory public purpose. The two policy secretaries are in fact encouraging both the Town Planning Board and the Country and Marine Parks Board, as well as the public, to overlook, and even subvert, their statutory responsibilities.

It is also worth reminding all concerned that, since 2011, the Hong Kong government has been committed to following the requirements of the international Convention on Biological Diversity and will be consulting the public this year on its Bio-diversity Strategy and Action Plan. This will require action not only to preserve country and marine parks but also to expand and enhance them.

Such tracts of land are attractive to the administration as, in the main, they are government-owned so there will be little or no cost of land resumption. But this would be a false economy.

By definition, the land is remote, likely to be hilly with trees, lacking suitable infrastructure such as roads and drains and at best could only be used for low-density, low-rise development. This would not be a good trade-off; the relatively small number of units provided could never justify the damage that would be done.

So what are the alternatives? Make better use of existing “brownfield” sites. There are some 600 redundant industrial buildings in urban areas which are now 40 to 50 years old and whose replacement with modern residential buildings would constitute positive urban renewal.

With the completion of MTR extensions west to Kennedy Town and south to Ap Lei Chau, all the old industrial buildings in Wong Chuk Hang, Aberdeen, Ap Lei Chau and Kennedy Town should be rezoned for residential use. All these areas have the infrastructure in place and are obvious targets for development. Lease modifications should be fast-tracked and, if multiple ownership is a problem, government resumption is an option.

The 2014 policy address identified 257 hectares of agricultural land in North and Yuen Long districts that are used mainly for industrial purposes or temporary storage, or which are deserted. This land should be pushed forward for early development.

Finally, the government should have the courage of its convictions and press ahead with the new town proposals in the
New Territories.
If 200 or so farmers are affected, as in the case of the proposed development in Fanling North, that is the price to pay if over 70,000 people can be adequately housed as a result. Surely, that’s a lesson in democracy, where the benefit of the majority should override the concerns of the adequately compensated minority.

So the message is clear: leave our green belt and country park land alone, and focus on other much more productive sites.

Roger Nissim is an adjunct professor in the Department of Real Estate and Construction at the University of Hong Kong.