Rejecting Mega plan risky: minister

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2008, 12:00am

Official defends land swaps for developers

The government could face a legal challenge if it rejected the long- approved Mega Tower project in Wan Chai, the development minister said yesterday as she defended the practice of land swaps to allow development.

But Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised to make more transparent the process by which the government gives developers land they need to complete projects in return for sites the developers own elsewhere.

In the case of the 93-storey hotel project in Wan Chai, developer Hopewell Holdings owns less than half the 10,313-metre site of the proposed development, with the government holding the rest - most of it wooded slopes.

Doubts have been cast on the land exchange system, with critics saying it favours developers and harms the public interest.

Government officials were called to a special meeting of the Legislative Council's development panel yesterday to explain problems with the land exchanges that developers had requested for the Mega Tower project, a park on Ma Wan Island and the Cheung Kong Center in Central.

The Town Planning Board approved construction of the Mega Tower on a site between Queen's Road East and Kennedy Road in 1994.

Residents, supported by lawmakers and district councillors, say the plan is unacceptable because it would reduce air flow and worsen traffic congestion.

They have urged the government not to proceed with the land swap. But Mrs Lam told lawmakers yesterday: 'We possibly face a big risk if we reverse the decision to approve the project. The government could be taken to court.'

Still, she said the government had the final say over the land exchange and the developer had to produce updated projections of the project's impact on traffic that satisfy the district council and the Transport Department.

She admitted the land exchange policy could be more transparent.

She hopes the transparency with which the Development Bureau handled a land exchange involving the King Yin Lei mansion will become standard practice.

After the unidentified owner of the iconic 1930s Chinese-style mansion in Stubbs Road, Mid-Levels, hired contractors who stripped its roof and defaced many of its decorative features, the government agreed to swap the site for 4,705 square metres of public land in green belt nearby on which the owner intends to build five houses for sale.

Mrs Lam said the exchange policy should not be scrapped because it provided opportunities to develop abandoned farmland and old industrial areas and allowed the preservation of historic buildings such as King Yin Lei.

Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan suspected the policy had undermined Legco's monitoring of public spending.

In the case of the Ma Wan Park, the government did not have to seek Legco's approval for funding, he said.

'By deducting the construction cost from the land premium required for the land swap, the government actually paid Sun Hung Kai Properties a billion dollars to build a public park,' he said.

Sun Hung Kai gained permission for its Park Island development on Ma Wan on condition it build the park. It should have been finished two years ago but is still incomplete.

We possibly face a big risk if we reverse the decision to approve the project

Carrie Lam, secretary for development