Hong Kong's country parks are under threat. A developer who paid HK$16 million for a former village in Tai Long Wan, Sai Kung, is believed to be turning the area into his own private playground, with a helipad that allows him to shuttle in and out of it at his pleasure. The area, described in a government landscape study as 'an area still largely inaccessible and almost free from development', is known for its remoteness and natural beauty.
Yet, the new owner can seemingly redevelop the old village structures with impunity. He can trace ding rights - rights of the former Sai Wan villagers to build houses - and create a villa park under the established practice of the Lands Department and Town Planning Board. One just needs to look at Tai Tan and other similar 'private pocket areas' within or surrounded by country parks to see this already happening.
Public outrage has forced the developer to halt work at the site for now and wait for the storm to pass. But the problem has not gone away.
The situation that Hong Kong finds itself in - where country parks and areas of unspoiled, remote natural beauty are open to the whims of developers - is due to a lack of foresight. When country parks were created, the settling of private property rights was avoided so the government did not have to pay compensation to their then inhabitants. No planning or development controls were introduced because significant development wasn't seen as practicable - the lack of access alone was deemed to be a sufficient barrier.
How times have changed.
With the huge increases in wealth of mainland China and its entrepreneurs, remote areas have become accessible. The latest 'must have' toys of the affluent - powerboats and helicopters - are turning Hong Kong's country parks into the next neighbourhood for the ultra-rich. The only player that seems surprised by this development is the government - which, ironically, is responsible for making the city so attractive to the Chinese diaspora with friendly tax, financial and legal regimes. What Monaco is for the Europeans, Hong Kong is now for the Chinese.
But the government should not be in a position of playing catch-up. During consultations on the mapping of Hong Kong's landscape in 2001, most participants suggested that significant natural or cultural landscapes should be identified for protection. But the government said that the study's objectives did not include recommending any specific landscapes be designated for protection. Even so, it did conclude that there was sufficient information to be used as the basis for designating landscape areas for protection, 'if it was considered desirable' to do so after the study was completed.
However, nothing happened. During the consultations for the 2004 New Nature Conservation Policy, the government was again made aware of the issues with private sites in high-value areas. Ninety per cent of the 137 submissions explained the need for planning and development control by means of land resumption, land exchange, tightening of the existing measures relating to conservation zonings on town plans, off-site mitigation and transfer of development rights.
The government chose to consider this 'impracticable' in view of the financial and land resource implications, and the complexities and difficulties of implementation. It justified its inaction by explaining that there was no need to worry, as development was sufficiently frustrated for these sites, 'since the sites concerned are mainly held under agricultural leases, under which the landowners are not entitled to any development rights'. That statement has proven to be false, as many leases allow extensive earth works, rebuilding previous structures and building new village houses.
The only step the government was willing to take was to implement management agreements and public-private partnerships as 'practicable improvement options' for the development of 12 pilot areas. Six years on, none of these have progressed. In the meantime, WWF has reported that another 40 sites of conservation value have been degraded, including recently Ma Shi Chau, So Lo Pun, Sam Tam Lo, Lui Kung Tin and now Tai Long Sai Wan.
There are three things the government can still do to immediately control the damage at Tai Long Sai Wan:
Stop the crossing of Sai Kung East Country Park with construction equipment and materials whether by air, sea or land;
Prepare a Development Permission Area Plan for Tai Long Sai Wan; or alternatively
Reacquire the private land to safeguard the public interest by preserving the landscape value of Tai Long Wan.
Tai Long Sai Wan has proven without doubt the need for a comprehensive review of private land within or surrounded by country parks to protect the public's interest in Hong Kong's unique natural heritage. Tai Long Sai Wan must spark a comprehensive renewal of the Nature Conservation Policy in the same way the King Yin Lei Mansion triggered the renewal of our heritage policy. These measures must be taken:
Include private land that is surrounded by, and adjacent to, country parks but without stringent planning control in the ongoing programme of the Development Permission Areas Plan;
Decide the land uses for each area so that they are consistent with the surrounding country parks;
Reacquire all private land deemed too valuable for any private development;
Enforce restrictions on crossing country parks with construction equipment and materials;
Require an environmental impact assessment study for any and all development-related works on land within and adjacent to country parks;
Establish an interdepartmental task force, led by the chief secretary, to resolve the land use and ownership issues of private land surrounded by and within country parks.
Paul Zimmerman is chief executive officer of Designing Hong Kong