Use Fanling golf club site for homes, not Hong Kong's farmland

Albert Cheng says the housing plan for the northeastern New Territories needs to be abandoned in favour of redevelopment of private clubs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 3:09am

After the July 1 protest rally, the government has desperately tried to placate sweltering public discontent with sweeteners. Hence, the unveiling of modified redevelopment plans for the northeastern New Territories.

Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po called the plan the ultimate and strengthened version, hoping it would generate a more positive public response.

It has, however, provoked spirited criticism from all sectors. The strongest opposition has come from local villagers and environmental groups. Villagers have threatened to occupy the Fanling golf club to protest against a proposed plan that would take their farmland and homes for development. They have demanded that the plan be scrapped.

If Chan really meant what he said, that the government would consider recovering the land from the golf club for housing development, it's possible that a miracle could happen, and the government could revive its rock-bottom approval ratings. However, Chan doesn't seem to have the political stamina to see it through.

In the past, Chan has said that, to make the best use of land, the government could and would recover any land for housing or redevelopment - be it land used for a private golf course, farmland, or even land zoned for military use by the People's Liberation Army. Singapore is already looking into this: the government has said it could redevelop some golf courses for housing.

Hong Kong would benefit immensely if it were to do the same. Unfortunately, as they stand, the revised plans for development have been dubbed by some as the "strengthened version" to fortify government-business collusion.

The Fanling golf club and Happy Valley racecourse are but colonial-era remnants

The only difference from the previous proposal is a narrowing of the scope of development, focusing on Kwu Tung North and Fanling North as an extension to Fanling/Sheung Shui New Town, covering an area of 333 hectares. Under current plans, up to 60,000 flats will be built to accommodate nearly 180,000 people. About 60 per cent of the homes would be public housing.

Unfortunately, the plan includes recovering a lot of farmland, which has angered the rural population and indigenous villagers, even though the government is willing to compromise by allowing in situ land exchange.

With the rezoning of the land, many believe that it is a direct transfer of benefits to the owners of swathes of farmland in the New Territories, such as Henderson Land and New World Development. No wonder there are accusations of collusion.

If Chan really wants to help the government redeem some credibility, he should first resolve the Fanling golf club land issue instead of eyeing the farmland in Kwu Tung North and Fanling North, which will almost certainly provoke public outrage and opposition from villagers. The Hong Kong Golf Club course may not be as big a plot of land as the other two combined, but at 170 hectares, it is still pretty substantial and sufficient to accommodate 30,000 flats.

However, its club members are among the richest and most powerful people in the city. Thus, the government will face strong countervailing forces if it tries to resume the golf course land. But it is precisely because of this that the administration would earn a big round of applause from the public if it succeeded.

According to the land lease, the government only needs to give 12 months' notice to the club before it can recover the land. Chan really doesn't have to do much other than stand his ground to achieve the goal because of the massive public support behind the idea. Once this is achieved, it could trigger a chain reaction for recovery of similar pieces of land, to help resolve the perennial land supply shortage in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong isn't short of golf courses. On Hong Kong Island, there is a nine-hole course at Deep Water Bay and one in Shek O. There is another in Discovery Bay. The New Territories boasts two, including one in Clear Water Bay. And, since the handover, many Hongkongers go across the border to play golf. So there is no shortage of choice.

In fact, there are many plots of land in urban areas that are as big as the Fanling golf club site, which can be redeveloped for housing. It may be time for the government to rethink its housing and land policy. The Happy Valley racecourse is a good example. Even if it's not resumed for housing development, it could be redeveloped to provide ample public spaces for all to enjoy.

The Fanling golf club and Happy Valley racecourse are nothing but colonial-era remnants of a time when public resources were enjoyed by a privileged few. Times have changed and government policy must give priority to the public good. It's not only politically correct; it's also an act of sincerity to share the fruits of prosperity with the people.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.