Paul Chan

Country park vandalism not the way to solve housing shortage

Stephen Vines doesn't trust landowners to develop any areas sensitively

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 2:45am

Politicians and bureaucrats have an uncanny ability to solve one problem by creating a bigger one elsewhere. We must thank development minister Paul Chan Mo-po for providing a classic example of how this can be done.

He has suggested that a good way of tackling the housing shortage would be to whittle down the country parks, one of Hong Kong's greatest treasures. Unsurprisingly, Lau Wong-fat, the head of the no-village-is-too-small-to-ruin Heung Yee Kuk, was quick to offer his support.

Lau is a big-time property player in the New Territories and Chan's own property dealings suggest he was an active player in this market and may well confuse the concept of land with that of property.

They will slash and build without the slightest regard for the environment

Chan and Lau see this issue primarily through the eyes of property traders who believe there is a land shortage. That myth has been demolished elsewhere but there may indeed be a shortage of property development opportunities, which is quite another matter.

Even if this is so, who in their right mind believes the best way to improve housing opportunities is to destroy our country parks? Unfortunately, the destroy-to-improve mentality has persistently afflicted government officials and explains why so many of the city's historic buildings and landmarks have disappeared.

The case for the country parks is pretty self-evident but worth repeating.

First up, the parks provide a vital lung for a very crowded city that needs a place to breathe. Secondly, the proximity of the parks to the built-up areas means they are accessible to everyone and the number of visitors is growing. Thirdly, the preservation of these areas ensures the preservation of the environment. Fourthly, and here we are on ground that Chan and his friends would probably ignore, there is an aesthetic question. The parks offer breathtaking natural beauty and as the seasons change they change in exciting ways.

This does not mean adopting an absolutist position when looking at the future of the parks. There is indeed scope inside these areas for some limited development, and although Chan does not seem aware of the reality on the ground, some quite big areas within the country parks are excluded from their boundaries.

Members of the kuk control much of the land in the parks and other land parcels have been acquired by property developers. If, for one nanosecond, anyone believes that these landowners have the interests of the countryside at heart, now is the time for a reality check. The record shows that, given half a chance, they will slash and build without the slightest regard for the surrounding environment.

This is not to say that a limited amount of housing and recreational facilities cannot be built in these areas. The issue is how much and what kind of development is suitable. It's not that all development in the country parks should be taboo but that the people who own the land and the supine government officials who strive to keep them onside cannot be trusted to engage in appropriate forms of development.

Maybe Chan's friends in the kuk are egging him on to declare that the housing problem can be tackled by engaging in an act of environmental vandalism and have persuaded him that they can offer political support in ways that make destruction of the countryside a price worth paying.

The chief executive has now put a former policeman in charge of the body overseeing the country parks and even before taking office he was equivocating over whether they need to be protected.

Since Chan's views were publicised, the government has suggested he was only "testing the water". If so, let's make sure the test comes up negative because, as matters stand, the price of conserving Hong Kong is eternal vigilance.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur