Nature concerns must be part of development plans

Wilson Lau says conflicts over the environmental impact of development projects could be avoided if Hong Kong had a proper conservation policy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 2:49am

No one is perhaps more eager to end the contentions over Hong Kong's land supply than the chief executive, who is reportedly due to announce initiatives to increase housing supply in next week's policy address.

This comes as no surprise. For years, Hong Kong has seen housing become unaffordable and its old stock increasingly dilapidated. Moreover, a major feature of Leung Chun-ying's election platform last year rested on a promise to tackle housing shortages.

There is no doubt that this is of great urgency, but if land were to be set aside for housing, policymakers need to simultaneously consider what land to conserve. The logic is simple. We need to know what of nature we value and should protect before we can allocate the less ecologically sensitive areas for development.

Events last year have shown that development and conservation do not mix well. In July, plans to build a columbarium at the ecologically rich area of Sha Lo Tung were shelved under mounting pressure from the public. The proposal, already submitted to the Advisory Council on the Environment for endorsement, is now under review.

Not long afterwards, the proposed Lung Mei artificial beach had many citizens up in arms about the development's impact on marine life in the area.

Even the new development area of northeast New Territories, where its Long Valley wetland has been a haven for birds, has environmentalists fearing the worst once a large human community settles in nearby.

These proposals were mired in conflict largely because the sites were such poor choices for development.

A block of land reserved for housing could create more conflict and concern unless the government makes it clear what its intentions are on conservation for Hong Kong.

The city needs to develop a clear and comprehensive plan for conservation.

When the Convention on Biological Diversity was extended to Hong Kong in 2011, the city became obliged to develop a biodiversity strategy and action plan. This is no easy task, because it calls for a process with wide community involvement from the very start.

Civic Exchange recently published a guide to developing just such an action plan for Hong Kong. One of its major recommendations was to set up the necessary institutions to undertake the task. A biodiversity working group comprising all stakeholders should be formed to drive the process, and a high-level government steering committee, led by the chief executive or the chief secretary, could provide support to expedite action.

A group of 24 environmental and civic groups have sent a joint letter to the chief executive, requesting him to make conservation a priority in his forthcoming policy address.

As Hong Kong is poised to make significant changes to its land use, the government must recognise that moves to set aside areas for biodiversity conservation are a vital safeguard in maintaining the quality of life for all. Society demands no less from its officials.

Wilson Lau is research and projects co-ordinator at Civic Exchange