Computerisation of land-approval process planned

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 1997, 12:00am

THE government is set to launch a second study into how its land-approval process can be speeded up in a bid to stave off further criticism from developers that the procedures are slow, bureaucratic and inherently anti-development.

As the row between the two sides grew increasingly bitter last week, Director of Lands Bob Pope said his department would start work on a study into computerising its approval process. An earlier study into the processing of land transactions had already been completed and many of its findings implemented. With both sides blaming each other, the move is unlikely to placate developers who have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of the land-approval process, a process they say can take seven years. Following last week's last land auction before the handover, analysts warned the government had sent a clear signal that it intended to control housing prices through the release of land.

Wai Siu-yu, general secretary of the Real Estate Developers' Association of Hong Kong, said there was 'no question' developers were sitting on land that could be developed. Those with land were either waiting for approval or were sitting on it because it was not 'zoned' correctly.

With limited development sites on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon, developers were devoting their attention to land in the New Territories zoned for agricultural uses. With rezoning, Mr Wai argued, this could be put to better use.

'A lot of land outside the new towns in the New Territories, if it's not country parks, is agricultural,' he said.

'We are talking about a large amount of land that could be opened up for development with faster development of railways, trunk roads and highways.' Mr Wai added: 'Ninety-nine times out of 100 you get your planning application turned down.' Figures of how much land is held by developers are difficult to find. The picture is clouded by the fact that many of the large firms buy land through shelf companies.

A consultant with one of Hong Kong's major planning companies said: 'It is fairly safe to assume that a large proportion of agricultural land below 50-metres elevation in the New Territories is in speculative ownership of one form or another.' Ownership could be held by large developers, consortiums of smaller developers or even companies that specialised in assembling land into developable plots.

Sun Hung Kai project planning department manager Roger Nissim said part of the problem was that the government tried to act 'all on its own'.

Developers could have a role in building infrastructure for housing projects, he said. The government need not wait for that infrastructure to be developed before allowing in the developers.

Mr Wai said two changes were needed to free up what was highly developable land.

'We always want to have a faster process,' he said. 'We also want to have changes in policy.' A process that speedily re-zoned agricultural land for residential development would be the ideal solution.

But government officials see responsibility for development problems differently. Despite conceding the approval process could be speeded up, Mr Pope refused to accept the bulk of developers' criticisms.

The computerisation study should shave 'weeks or months' off the 18 months to two years it took to process an average land application, but Mr Pope warned it would still be a necessarily lengthy procedure.

'We are not dealing with producing cars or woollen sweaters,' he said. 'We are talking about developments that will last hopefully for ever. The process has to be done in a proper manner.' Mr Pope also attacked developers for looking for short-term profits, evidenced by their reluctance to develop land when the property market was depressed just a few years ago.

He also attacked their policy of accumulating land zoned for agriculture.

'The so-called land bank is land developers bought on spec in the hope that they will get planning permission,' he said. 'It isn't in areas planned for residential development.' Senior town planner Maggie Lam Waifun was more conciliatory. 'There are chances for developers to use land for other purposes,' she said. 'It depends how good a proposal the development is.' Claims by developers that they had gone to the authorities with plans to provide housing alongside needed infrastructure developments but had been turned down, angered Mr Pope.

'We would be stupid if we said 'no'. We do say 'yes' where we can,' he said. 'We did enough land transactions last year to produce about 40,000 flats - more than double the yearly supply of flats produced from property developers. Let the facts speak for themselves.'