Reclaimed land the best solution for Hong Kong's housing problem
Peter Kammerer says given the complex issues involved in other options to find land for housing, reclamation makes the most sense
Hong Kong has had a deficit of one sort or another in need of urgent fixing as long as I've lived here. Clean air, university places and recreation facilities have always been in short supply, but governments have also told us from time to time we lack roads, tourists, airport capacity, and shopping and office space. Shortage of land has been a perennial, but now that it has been joined by housing, the two have become inextricably linked and a priority in the eyes of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's administration. But it only takes a trip beyond the north shore of Hong Kong Island or Kowloon to make it obvious that there is space aplenty for flats.
Visiting relatives from Germany frequently pointed that out last week during our numerous trips to tourist destinations. Guide books had prepared them for cheek-to-jowl high-rises and concrete jungles and they were surprised by the abundant wide open and green spaces. Particularly baffling were the junkyards of rusting shipping containers, abandoned vehicle bodies and garbage piles dotted throughout the New Territories. They were dismayed when told of the government's frantic search for land to build 470,000 flats over the next decade.
Explaining to out-of-towners the intricacies of the New Territories' small house policy for indigenous villagers, why 40 per cent of Hong Kong's 1,104 square kilometres should be set aside for country parks and herds of wild cows should be allowed to make a mess of Lantau roads, apparently with public approval, isn't easy. But my answer of, "it's complicated", didn't satisfy and nor should it - yet that is apparently why authorities are keeping a low profile when it comes to these land supply options. For political, historic, social and cultural reasons, they would rather not directly raise them. Bureaucratic red tape and legal and environmental requirements make them long-term, not short- or medium-term, possibilities.
Getting the People's Liberation Army to turn over land is as difficult, while acquiring a golf course here and there won't suffice, nor will rezoning the occasional industrial plot. A definitive land-use policy should be formulated, but that doesn't resolve the difficulties. So, if we want to find land, the simplest solution is a much tried-and-tested way with a century and a half of proven success: reclamation.
I've long been leery of reclaiming land due to the environmental impact. Yet Hong Kong students through to the 1990s were taught that this was one of the British colonial government's greatest legacies. Not only did it solve the problems of land shortages and where to put construction waste, but it also raised revenue for the government through sales and taxes. The harbour protection movement of the late 1990s and court rulings have thankfully put paid to further filling in of Victoria Harbour, but shores elsewhere are generally fair game, as is the creation of artificial islands.
In light of the challenges, the government's proposal to reclaim land at five sites as well as build an island between Hong Kong and Lantau makes absolute sense. There will be opposition, but given the constraints, and after proper impact assessments, it is the most viable option while resolute efforts are made to consider or negotiate other possibilities.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post