Troubled Leung government's land policy on shaky ground

Philip Bowring says C.Y. Leung's bad appointments and shattered credibility will make land-use proposals harder to pass, but tough and unpopular decisions will have to be taken

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 1:22am

Land is the root of all evil - at least in Hong Kong. It had been hoped by many, myself included, that with his background in the property market as a surveyor, C.Y. Leung would be able to bring some coherence to land policy. Instead he brought into his government a clutch of individuals now known for property price boosterism and New Territories land speculation.

Three officials - Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, Franklin Lam Fan-keung and Henry Ho Kin-chung - have now departed under clouds which cast serious doubt on Leung's judgment in appointing them in the first place. A fourth, the most important, Paul Chan Mo-po, hangs on despite overwhelming evidence of his lack of judgment. Impropriety and illegality are not the same. Chan's refusal to quit is having a negative impact on the administration and showing Leung to be incapable of leading. He should have sacked Chan immediately. Instead, he treats him like a protected species. Is he a member of the Party, or the Freemasons?

The damage to the government is immense because decisions about land are needed for the benefit of the community at large and must be explained coherently. Above all, the public must believe that decisions are being made in their interest, not those of vested interests, be they the Heung Yee Kuk, individuals in government, big developers or voters in districts.

Leung's appointments record and absence of leadership will make land-use decisions harder than ever to push through either the Legislative Council or broader opinion. Leung has even managed to offend the property tycoons for the wrong reason - the taxes on non-resident purchases, which treat a symptom, not a cause. His focus on more public housing, rather than making cheaper private housing cheaper, also increases the social divide and creates greater dependence.

Clearly Hong Kong needs more housing - though not as much as bloated population projections imply. Some land needs to be converted to residential use. So start with making more efficient use of what is already developed, or at least no longer rural.

The most obvious case in point is the unsightly semi-urban sprawl in the New Territories, which is a very inefficient use of land and is largely the product of the grip the kuk has on the administration, blocking reform of the village house policy and encouraging both New Territories bigwigs, such as by Lau Wong-fat with his land parcels, and others, such as Chan and his family, to speculate on land-use prospects.

There are lesser issues, too, like conversion of old factories in residential areas. Of course there are infrastructure and transport issues to consider, but the main stumbling blocks are the government's reluctance either to take on vested interests or to see land prices fall.

Some sacred cows are going to have to be sacrificed. It is now largely forgotten that in 1975 even cricket-playing colonial officials booted the Hong Kong Cricket Club out of what is now Chater Garden and moved it to Wong Nai Chung Gap. The Hong Kong Golf Club simply cannot hang on to all that land in Fanling with infrastructure on its doorstep. Let it keep the main course and club facilities and maybe also a nine-hole one and offer alternative courses. There may be a possibility of more courses on Kau Sai Chau, where there are now three public ones, or other locations.

Golf is the most land-intensive of all sports. Here, the community is woefully lacking in sports facilities. So what that Singapore has more golf courses? Singapore cannot begin to compare with Hong Kong's wonderful swimming, sailing, windsurfing, diving, hiking, canoeing, hang-gliding opportunities and so on. We should play to our strengths, especially when there are so many golf courses just across the border.

The Nimby attitudes are not just with the golfing elite but evident on other key issues such as incineration. The effort to push through a giant incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau is simply a response to local opposition to the Tuen Mun location. But better still would be if Hong Kong followed the example of other cities and had tough recycling laws and several smaller incinerators.

Tokyo has had a compulsory recycling system since 1964, limiting the amount of incineration and sharing the burden - there are 23 in Tokyo, almost one for each ward. Singapore has five. As it is, officials here refuse to discuss options, including the advanced plasma systems which have very low emissions, or the Green Island Cement proposal offering an alternative to incineration. The public naturally suspects pecuniary interests, not the public interest, are again at play.

A government too indecisive to introduce a waste separation and charging system is also bound to face protests against expanding a stinking landfill near a residential area. Now we are told more consultations are need so we can have a consensus on waste charging! What nonsense. It simply shows that officials either lack an effective plan, or lack the confidence that they can sell it to the public and legislature.

For that they must blame themselves and their supposed leader. Burden-sharing is the answer to Nimbyism. What is striking is how little progress Hong Kong has made in these areas since Leung came to office. The bottom line is that the government knows it is not trusted.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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