Welcome step in New Territories
So long as there is more to be gained than lost, people can be expected to exploit loopholes in the law. One of the most egregious examples has to be illegal filling of rural land and ponds in the New Territories to pave the way for development.
Thanks to divided responsibilities between government departments and authorities, development and rezoning applications can go ahead in tandem with investigation of illegal dumping, and enforcement notices to restore the land. Owners would argue that degradation of the land justified development - another instance of one rule for New Territories residents and a different one for the rest of us.
It is good to see that the Town Planning Board - the development and rezoning authority - has finally put a brake on that. As a deterrent, it will defer rezoning or development applications until investigation of land and pond-filling is completed; and in the case of notice to restore land, it will assess applications as if the land were in its original state. This will make it more difficult for owners to argue that they should effectively be rewarded for degradation of their land.
This follows a number of cases over the years in which the board approved erection of village houses on former farmland that had been subjected to illegal dumping.
The Planning Department also plans to step up prosecutions for unauthorised development. This is good news, too, given that courts have begun imposing heavier fines for this offence, in response to increased public awareness of planning and environmental issues.
As green groups point out, these measures will only cover sites covered by the so-called 'development area permission plan' before being given a formal zoning. They have a point. The process of extending these areas takes time, but the tougher line being taken by planning authorities is a reminder that there is no time to lose if the New Territories is to be protected from rampant disregard for modern planning and environmental practices.