Officials have always hated Hong Kong's country parks

There's no other explanation for recurring schemes to pave over these city treasures, to provide development land we don’t need

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 2:47am

Hong Kong government officials have long suffered from a malignant combination of agoraphobia and chlorophobia - a terror of open spaces coupled with an irrational fear of the colour green.

Take our public servants and put them anywhere they are not surrounded by glittering shopping malls, grade A office towers and "luxury" property developments, and they break out in a cold sweat.

Worse, if there happens to be any vegetation around, they begin to panic. Their heart rates shoot up, they start to hyperventilate, their knees begin to tremble and they come over all faint.

Restored to normality again in the air-conditioned cocoons of their chauffeur-driven official cars, they shake their heads as they slowly recover and mutter: "It's no good, it'll have to go."

At least that's the only explanation I can think of for the government's long-standing animosity towards Hong Kong's 24 country parks.

Loved by the city's population as islands of natural beauty, havens of tranquility, and easily accessible playgrounds away from the urban turmoil of everyday life, Hong Kong's parks had 13 million "recorded" visitors last year, according to the government.

Given that the vast majority of visits go unrecorded, that means the parks were used many, many times more than that.

Yet our officials are resolutely hostile. Back in 2002, with the city's property market five years into a cyclical slump, one government genius suggested the best way to plug the Hong Kong's budget deficit would be to sell off the country parks for property development.

Happily for everyone, that idea came to nothing. Now, however, our officials are at it again. In his blog last week, Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po suggested that Hong Kong's country parks could be built over for housing.

The argument officials advance privately is that the city is desperately short of building land. If the government is to build the 470,000 flats Hong Kong needs over the next 10 years to alleviate its acute housing shortage, then developing country-park land is the only option.

This is nonsense of a high order.

First, let's examine the notion that Hong Kong needs 470,000 new homes.

According to the government's own forecasts, the city's population is set to increase by some 484,000 souls over the next 10 years.

Accepting the official projection that average household size will fall from 2.9 to 2.8, and factoring in the disproportionately rapid growth of small households, that implies the formation of 300,000 new households by 2023.

Even allowing for a charitable estimate of the numbers currently living in sub-standard conditions who need to be rehoused, and factoring in a faster rate for the demolition of old housing, it is hard to imagine that Hong Kong's demand for new homes over the next 10 years could exceed 350,000 flats - a far cry from the 470,000 flats the government wants.

If we then assume these 350,000 new homes are built at a density of just 500 per hectare - generous compared with densities of up to 1,030 per hectare in the government's new towns - then the total land area required for building comes to 700 hectares, or seven square kilometres.

Hong Kong boasts plenty of spare room to build on without going anywhere near the country parks

Even the government's 470,000-flat plan would need less than 10 square kilometres.

A quick glance at the Planning Department's figures for land use shows that Hong Kong boasts plenty of spare room to build on without going anywhere near the country parks (see the chart).

For example, 16 square kilometres are currently classed as vacant, with a another 16 square kilometres used for warehouses or "open storage". The government itself occupies 25 square kilometres.

And there is an enormous 342 square kilometres of scrubland, woodland, grassland and agricultural land (which excludes both villages and golf courses) sitting outside the boundaries of the city's country parks.

In short, there is an abundance of potential building land, and no need at all for the government to consider concreting our treasured country parks.

You can only conclude that our officials must suffer from a deep-seated fear and loathing of undeveloped public spaces.