Single authority the key to proper urban planning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 2010, 12:00am

Illegal dumping and other abuses that plague the New Territories are fraught with law-enforcement issues. They range from weak legislation and claims to private property rights to difficulties in identifying culprits. This is not helped by the division of responsibilities between government departments that frustrates effective action. As a result, dumping and illegal excavation is rife, sometimes with the complicity of the landowner. If such abuses are effectively condoned by subsequent approval by the authorities for development, this can only add to the problems created by the lack of proper urban planning in the New Territories.

Two cases in point have emerged, with Town Planning Board approval of construction of small houses - one on agricultural land and the other on government land - in the Tai Po village of Shan Liu, a place notorious for clearance of vegetation, waste dumping and development of illegal access. The government land is 99.5 per cent green belt that was stripped of vegetation in 2007.

Worryingly, a member of the board's rural and new town planning committee says the history of illegal dumping and excavation was not considered relevant.

This understandably raises fears among conservationists and planning experts that the board and government officials are effectively giving the green light to the 'destroy first, build later' approach to development of the countryside, at least so far as the small house policy is concerned. Under the policy, each indigenous New Territories male is permitted to build a three-storey house. These are the first small-house applications in the village approved by the board's rural and new town committee for at least six years, with 13 since 2003 having been rejected on environmental and land-use compatibility grounds. According to an unconfirmed estimate, more than 270 small houses or nine hectares will be needed at Shan Liu in the next 10 years for indigenous male villagers who turn 18.

Then there is illegal dumping. This has been instrumental in turning parts of the New Territories into an eyesore. But the Heung Yee Kuk, which represents indigenous villagers, has put forward a proposal that would legalise dumping on private farmland. It claims this would help absorb soil excavated for major public infrastructure projects and save on the cost of exporting waste to the mainland. The abandoned farm sites would then be levelled off for the development of properties. It would be naive to believe that landowners would not take advantage of such a situation, reasoning that once land was levelled, the Planning Department could be pushed to allow development. The kuk is right to blame lack of town planning for the abandonment of large swathes of farmland and fish ponds, which have become mosquito breeding grounds or eyesores such as container and scrap metal yards. But its proposal risks turning much of our rural areas into a free dumping ground.

The small-house policy and the abuses of land use it gives rise to lie at the heart of planning dysfunction in the New Territories. The government, no doubt, regards the policy as politically sensitive as indigenous villagers assert that they have a constitutional right to a small house. But that is no excuse for appearing to condone illegal dumping. As a step towards bringing sense to urban planning, approval for waste dumping needs to be brought under a single authority such as the Environmental Protection Department, and penalties increased. Then compliance with the law needs to be taken into account in considering development applications.