There's no need for land reclamation
A government's job is as much to look to the future as the present. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's outgoing administration is doing that with its consultation on land supply. But the options put forward - reclaiming land beyond Victoria Harbour, including building artificial islands and use of rock caverns - should be last resorts. While the latter could prove an innovative way of dealing with unpopular utilities like waste treatment facilities and columbariums, there is more than enough land for tens of decades to come for housing and development in the New Territories.
The suggested options are claimed to be a matter of necessity. Authorities stress that with a limited supply of land and Hong Kong's population expected to increase a quarter to 8.9 million by 2039, there will soon not be enough for housing and economic growth. The existing strategy of rezoning, redevelopment, resumption and making use of old quarries is considered inadequate to meet anticipated demand. Being able to expand beyond the coastline and dig into mountainsides is being put forward as ensuring flexibility.
Scepticism in some quarters is rife. The government has lacked transparency and been wildly optimistic with projections when pushing projects in the past. Hong Kong Disneyland was supposed to reap a 10 per cent return in its first year, but six years later, continues to struggle with breaking even; the HK$35 billion Airport Express carries one-third fewer passengers than original estimates; and our Mandatory Provident Fund accounts remain pitifully low despite the bullish figures thrown about when it was launched 11 years ago. Concrete was poured and jobs created, but the benefits have not been as assured.
The consultation documents do not suggest how much land should be reclaimed or what specific uses it will be put to. A total of 25 sites were put forward half-way through the process, with the explanation that they would form the basis for eventually choosing a finalised list of 10 mid-year that would be taken to another consultation. The waters around Hong Kong are relatively deep, so reclamation is an expensive proposition. Tsang's last policy address made clear that land supply would have to be boosted to allow for a projected 40,000 new flats a year, 15,000 for public housing. Given the costs, it is unlikely that what would be reclaimed would be for affordable homes.
Hong Kong is not short of land, but the government seems reluctant to free up the greatest supply - in the New Territories - by resolutely taking on the contentious matter of indigenous villagers' property rights. Instead of reclaiming land, we should be sustainably using what we have while formulating long-term policies on housing, population and welfare. Reclamation carries environmental risks. It should be an option, but only when all other choices have been exhausted.