Construction bonanza under democratic cloud

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 1996, 12:00am

GROWING controversy over the need for massive infrastructure projects is fuelling fears of a slump in Hong Kong's construction industry after the completion of the $158 billion airport core programme (ACP).

Consultants, contractors and suppliers had hoped the boom brought by the airport related projects would continue beyond the handover.

Schemes including the North Lantau port development, Western Corridor Railway and harbour reclamations would have assured a steady supply of work until the turn of the century.

These three developments alone add up to more than $150 billion and are as diverse in design and construction as the ACP.

But cracks are beginning to appear in the Government's planning.

Port operators and special interest groups have recently questioned the need for the $40 billion Lantau port complex, at least in the near future.

Others believe the site should be shifted across the other side of the territory to Starling and Mirs Bays.

The Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation is facing an uphill struggle getting its plans for the $75 billion Western Corridor Railway past a suspicious legislature.

And senior Town Planning Board member Winston Chu Ka-sun, with wide public and legislative support, has questioned the Government's need to spend about $40 billion reclaiming a further 636 hectares in the harbour.

Hong Kong Institution of Engineers secretary general John Boyd said it was 'obviously true' that the shift towards more democracy in the territory meant the Government increasingly had to justify its plans to a wary public.

'In the past it has been fairly dictatorial, but the hope now is there will be more public discussion,' he said.

Discovery Bay developer HKR International managing director Jeremy Marriott was more forthright.

He believed the Government had 'hoodwinked' legislators and the public, inflating the need for the North Lantau port development.

Several years ago officials predicted the collapse of Hong Kong's trading status if container terminals 10 and 11 were not completed this year, he said.

'This simply hasn't happened. Operators have become more efficient and ports have developed along the coast of southern China.' If the Lantau port development is delayed or abandoned then it calls into question all the supporting infrastructure including highway links to Green Island and the Green Island reclamation itself.

The reclamation is one of six future infill schemes facing the axe if a harbour protection bill, to be lodged in the Legislative Council tomorrow, is passed by legislators.

Consultants, including Maunsell, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and Atkins Haswell, are working on feasibility studies for reclamations in south-east Kowloon, Kowloon Point and Wan Chai.

All reported no change in the scope of their work despite the threat the bill poses.

Nevertheless lucrative detailed design and construction supervision work would be scuppered if the projects were cancelled or scaled back.

'It's a worrying time. We've had the promise of all this work for some time, but now it's suddenly all under threat,' one consultant said.

The construction industry demonstrated its interest in future work when 200 representatives from engineering, architectural, contracting and equipment supply firms spent $500 each on a day-long briefing on the Western Corridor Railway.

Senior managers from the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation explained how the project would be split into about 30 design packages for tunnel, track and station construction, mechanical and services installation and equipment supply.

But in the past two weeks legislators and engineers, worried about the $75 billion price tag, have called into question the whole project.

A delegation from the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, led by Legco engineering representative Dr Samuel Wong Ping-wai, has even proposed three alternative cheaper links to Tuen Mun.

The Lands Department said it would be impossible to resume all the land along the rail route by the 1997 construction start which in turn threw the 2001 completion into doubt.

Firms remain stoical about the future, although they predict tough competition for the smaller-scale projects that will go ahead.

These include the $2 billion Mass Transit Railway Quarry Bay and Tseung Kwan O extensions and the Ma On Shan rail link.

International contractors including Amec, Aoki and Campenon Bernard, who have gained most from the airport related schemes, have already set their eyes on lucrative work in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

Other international firms with long-term operations in the territory such as Dragages which has been here since 1955 and Leighton Contractors, here since the late 60s, are also looking elsewhere.

Smaller local firms which have largely been left out of the airport-related pie, a point of sore contention among certain members of the Hong Kong Construction Association, will always find enough work around.

Indeed this has already been promised by the number of schemes that will still go-ahead with or without the mega-projects.

These schemes include drainage work in the Yuen Long and border areas and the Sham Tseng bridge or tunnel link from Lantau Island to the New Territories.

Jardine Engineering Construction Equipment Division has seen its crane order book swell four-fold as a result of airport schemes.

But manager Jimmy Chu said the ACP provided windfall profits and it was always realised the opportunity provided by the increase in work would be short-lived.

'It's something we knew would not last so we acted accordingly,' he said.