Must protect this precious natural heritage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 October, 1997, 12:00am

There is no good reason not to take the Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands, Bowen Leung at his word when he says that it has not been necessary to encroach upon country parks to achieve the new housing target of 85,000 flats per year (South China Morning Post, October 10).

On the other hand, the Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's commendable frankness in not being drawn into a public promise about the future inviolability of the country parks (Post, October 11), does suggest that something may be going on behind the scenes which may affect them.

It could well be that the would-be promoters of luxury low-rise developments, who have entered into deals with indigenous villagers in select areas of some of the parks, are planning to effect a break-through for schemes long held up because of opposition from conservationists.

On the face of it some of those developments look reasonable enough. Their promoters will argue that, given the very generous provision of 40 per cent of the SAR's land surface for parks, it makes good sense to use just a little bit of this space to help solve the shortfall in the luxury sector and draw in overseas executives.

There may indeed be some locations where a case can be made out for limited development subject to environmental impact checks.

The problem is that if particular cases are then allowed to become the vanguard for a more relaxed policy on the residential use of country parks their value to Hong Kong's vast and needy majority will be diminished. In the 1950s and '60s a quite unique coincidence of geographical, historical and administrative factors gave rise to a situation not replicated anywhere else in the world.

The New Territories, the natural hinterland of one of the world's most densely crowded and rapidly growing urban, industrial and commercial complexes remained largely undeveloped and in its natural state.

Reserved primarily as water catchment for local reservoirs before China was able to supply that need, vast areas of hill land were zealously protected from developers by government departments until an imaginative governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, put his weight behind legislative measures to safeguard them on behalf of the younger generation of Hong Kong people living in their teeming millions in urban high-rise buildings.

No other city in the world offers its young and least well-off a variety of free, outdoor recreational facilities which can be reached by low-cost public transport in an hour or less.

Once reached it is possible to walk for hours on end without hearing the sound of a car.

Nor is there another city where there is a greater need of relief from the stress of a frenetic urban lifestyle.

The understandable public clamour to boost housing supply should not be allowed to drown the concerns of those many organisations and individuals who warn against the erosion or downgrading of this irreplaceable legacy.