Relook privileged access to land in Hong Kong

Peter Kammerer says no privilege should be treated as untouchable if Hong Kong is serious about solving its housing problem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 4:52pm

Hong Kong has a severe housing shortage, so we're told. There is no doubt about the waiting list for public flats, but, beyond that, demand seems more about cross-border wants than local needs. Concentrating ever-more people into an already resource-strained environment makes no sense; I am not aware of the maxim "the more the merrier" equating with sustainable development, which should be our goal. All that aside, though, let me suggest that we do not have a lack of land for housing, just much unbridled privilege.

The South China Morning Post made this plain in 2010 when it raised the matter of private clubs and the generous terms the government gives them for use of public land. No one was aware, it seemed, of conditions in leases obligating the clubs to regularly open facilities to school groups and other non-members. Taking this thinking a step further, the environmental group Green Sense in November came up with a novel solution to authorities' controversial plans to evict thousands of northeast New Territories villagers so that 553 hectares of land could be reclaimed to build homes for 152,000 people. With one eye on the housing problem and the other on water and pesticides, it said the Hong Kong Golf Club's 170-hectare course at Fanling could be turned into a housing complex for 100,000 people.

Not being a golf player, I find this idea hugely appealing. Tycoons and former officials frequent the course, which has a 20-year waiting list for membership, also available on the second-hand market for about HK$14 million. Keep in mind that this is government land leased by the club for a nominal amount. But as much as I enjoy the thought of a playground for the rich and famous being turned into public housing, I also appreciate the club's upcoming 124th anniversary and the need for a city with an international outlook to have a top course on which world-class tournaments can be played.

So let's turn to the privilege elsewhere. If the government was not weak-willed, it could resolve the land issue by ending the much-abused right it gave New Territories' indigenous male villagers to a free plot of land on which to build a house with a footprint of 700 square feet. But Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying faces enough protests without stirring that hornet's nest, so how about another golf course? The Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club, with almost 130 hectares, would be a perfect spot for the 20,000 private flats authorities have promised will be built this year.

Dotted elsewhere with views not as stunning, but land aplenty, are a host of other clubs frequented mostly by the well-heeled. In a city where it is an offence to carry firearms, the Hong Kong Gun Club has a site at Tsuen Wan of almost 6.5 hectares. Among the upscale private clubs making use of sizeable plots of public land are the Kowloon Tong Club, with just a shade under 0.9 of a hectare; the Kowloon Tsai Home Owners Association, 0.57 hectares; and on Hong Kong Island, the Jardine's Lookout Residents' Association, with 1.24 hectares. The government has ultimate control over all land; if we truly face a crisis, it shouldn't be precious about who uses it.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post