Land reclamation is not the answer to public housing shortage

Wilson Lau warns that further reclamation in Hong Kong waters will make little difference to the chronic public housing shortage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 May, 2013, 3:17am

Passions were running high last Saturday as government officials met the public for the second stage of consultation on reclamation in Hong Kong waters.

Large-scale development is understandably a touchy subject, and none more so than in the government's updated proposal for reclamation at five sites, the majority of which is intended for Hong Kong's western waters and coastline. This is an area already congested with big plans, with the likes of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the proposed third runway. It is also home to Hong Kong's iconic pink dolphin.

It is not surprising that few at the packed community hall in Tsing Yi held back with their comments. There were those who harked back to Hong Kong's history of reclamation, which gave birth to the numerous new towns that exist today. Others claimed that a more efficient use of existing sites - adapting degraded or underutilised areas - would provide sufficient land.

But the question on everyone's lips was: how will the reclaimed land be used?

While a broad spectrum of people were present at the public forum, from green groups to the fisherfolk, from members of the post-80s generation to those in their 50s, the common thread was a genuine wish to resolve some of Hong Kong's persistent social problems, chief of which is the unaffordability of housing.

However, the public should not be duped into thinking that reclamation can offer a remedy.

The current vision for reclamation is to build up land reserves and allow for comprehensive planning. Plans offered so far include only one site, out of five, that may be suitable for residential housing. The rest are intended for business, entertainment and ports development. Reclamation is only likely to contribute slightly, and in the distant future, to the gaping public housing shortage that Hong Kong currently faces.

The government has wisely positioned reclamation as part of a wider strategy to enhance land supply. We should not be fooled into thinking that the purpose of reclamation is to increase land supply for public housing.

Reclamation was a vital part of Hong Kong's past growth, and many still see it as key to the city's evolution and vibrancy. There is a belief that this practice should carry on fuelling a growing city, even if population growth has slowed.

Not news to anyone is the downside of this growth, which is that while many people have prospered in our fair city over the decades, many more have not, resulting in one of the highest rich-poor gaps in the developed world.

If the current proposal merely perpetuates the same mindset of economic growth, then we cannot expect reclamation to add much to the equation in addressing Hong Kong's chronic issues.

Let's call it what it is. Reclamation to increase land reserves may be the least politically sensitive option, but it is certainly not the most socially and environmentally sensible.

The government needs to work much harder on tackling its policies and incentives that have stunted the capacity for using existing land, instead of relying on reclamation as a silver bullet.

Wilson Lau is a research and project officer at Civic Exchange