[SCMP Column] Land supply challenge

July 21, 2018

Ask any averagely skeptical citizen in Hong Kong what the result should be of the Government’s consultation on future land supply and you will likely get a wry smile: “The Government already has its preferred answer – land reclamation. The consultation is just looking for the questions.”

Even Stanley Wong, thoughtful and technocratic head of the Task Force on Land Supply, is hard pressed to explain why Carrie Lam is promising answers in her Policy Address in mid-October, when even the first draft of the Task Force report is not due until the end of the year.

Why has the Task Force been tasked to evaluate a marvellously comprehensive 18-option outline of Hong Kong’s land supply challenges when the government appears already to have reached its own conclusions? Especially when even the most basic examination of its options suggests that in the long term, future land supply needs can be met quite comfortably without resorting to expensive and environmentally harmful reclamation projects. If we have a genuine challenge, it is over short-term supply, and the price we are paying for 15 years of neglect.

Let’s start with the basic number. The Government and Task Force say we have a land supply shortfall of around 1,200 hectares. This is based on forecasts – now contested – that Hong Kong’s population will rise to 9m by 2030. Most recent projections suggest our population will never rise far above 8.2m, meaning that our land supply shortfall is likely to be significantly lower.

But let’s not quibble, and stay with the Task Force’s 1,200 ha. Better to have some land to spare, rather than too little. And it is important to remember that while the main challenge is to find enough space to house our population, there are other objectives here too – like cleaning up the blighted areas of Hong Kong and making our urban areas more liveable. (Sadly the Task Force fails to provide any cost-benefit analysis of the various options).

If our target is to find 1,200 ha, then the first insight from Stanley Wong’s list of 18 options is that we can put aside most of the options as unnecessary. Expeditious development of the six areas in the New Territories that make up the “New Development Areas” on their own provide 2,500 ha. Add together the three developments (which include some reclamation) along the north of Lantau, Tsing Yi southwest, Ma Liu Shui in Shatin, and Lung Kwu Tan in Tuen Mun and you have a further 450 ha.

Already that provides almost 3,000 ha. There are costs and tedious planning obstacles to overcome, but most of these developments sit clearly within the existing powers of the government. The message to Carrie Lam must surely be “Just get on with it – as speedily as possible”. And here’s the problem: all of these will take time, while at least 800 of the 1200ha is needed fast.

So why are we frivolously diverting everyone’s attention with exotic ideas of cementing over Plover Cove, developing parts of our Country Parks, using caverns, grabbing golf courses, or building new and extravagantly expensive artificial islands off east Lantau? Put politely, the case looks weak.

So too with the idea that we could redevelop, and build over the Kwai Tsing container terminals. It may be that on a 30 year view, our container port will gradually decline to a point where redevelopment makes sense. But today it remains the world’s 4th busiest port and drives hundreds of thousands of jobs. Euthanasia seems premature here. (The 64 ha River Trade Terminal might be another matter, however. It has passed its sell-by date, and could be conveniently repurposed for future housing).

Given the urgent short term supply challenge, there are other Task Force options that would make sense. Among these, the most glaring is to clean up and develop the brownfield sites that blight large parts of the north-west New Territories. We have approximately 1,300 ha of brownfield land, some of it muddled up with a further 1,000 ha of neglected private agricultural land. Our Government should take this blight in hand not simply to provide fast access to land for housing, but to clean up sores that are an embarrassment to the city.

The issue of New Territories village housing should also be tackled – not by offering villagers the lucrative opportunity to throw up gimcrack 6-storey houses instead of the current 3-storey ones – but by cleaning up the planning and development rules for the villages, so that they are safe, have proper piped gas and sewerage connectivity, and safely-planned infrastructure.

While I think this back-of-the-envelope audit suggests we have ample options by which to capture the 1,200 ha we need, there were two obvious options that were conspicuously omitted from Stanley Wong’s list.

The first is redevelopment of Disney – or part of it. This has lost money since it opened, is majority owned by the Government, and already has good infrastructure in place.

The second is to examine development of Hong Kong’s military sites, which amount to a substantial 2,750 ha. Most of this is the Castle Peak firing range (2,260ha), but the Stanley Barracks covers 120 hectares, while the barely-used Shek Kong airstrip and village up near Fanling covers 159ha. The Casino Lines, and the Gallipoli lines and firing range add a further 100 ha.

Power to release such military land sits with Beijing, doubtless on the recommendation of the PLA, but surely there can be no harm in requesting. After all, Article 13 of the Garrison Law says that if military land is no longer needed for military purposes, it “shall be turned over without compensation to the HKSARG for disposal.” If that is not an open invitation, I don’t know what is.

My summary? Unless my back-of-the-envelope audit is hopelessly off mark, Stanley Wong’s Task Force shows clearly that there is ample available land for the long term, without resort to exotic and expensive reclamation plans. The main challenge is short term. And if we are really hard pressed, we should ask the PLA.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinoins expressed are entirely his own.

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