Sai Kung villagers' rights must come with responsibility
Wilson Lau says the inclusion of enclaves into country parks may help exert some much-needed planning control, and should be encouraged.
A legislative subcommittee this week rejected an amendment law intended to redraw boundaries of the Sai Kung East Country Park to include the village of Tai Long Sai Wan and its acclaimed beaches.
The motion will now be put to a vote at the full Legislative Council next month. If it passes, the decision will sadly overwrite plans to protect the beauty and recreational value of the area.
Many of us remember Tai Long Sai Wan as the watershed moment in 2010 when the collective voice of the public won over that of private interests. At the time, private construction at the site that defaced a popular beach roused the public and persuaded the government to review all 77 such country park enclaves.
These enclaves, many of which contain private land, are either surrounded by or right next to country parks. Hence, many are ecologically important. Some are used by the public for recreation or simply enjoyed for their natural beauty. The Sai Wan enclave, for example, attracts many hikers who trek along the MacLehose trail. It therefore makes sense for these enclaves to be seen as natural extensions of the country parks, to be similarly conserved.
The government agrees and proposed to amend the law to protect some of these enclaves.
Yet the proposal has ruffled the feathers of the Heung Yee Kuk, and its leader Lau Wong-fat tabled the motion to reject the plan. He cites concerns about protecting villagers' rights and suggests private property rights should be paramount in a capitalist society. Other legislators in support of the motion also raise worries that village life would be further affected, pointing out that some villages do not even have access to municipal water services.
On the assertion that indigenous rights may be compromised, it should not be forgotten that small house permits have been sought - and granted - in the past on private land found within country parks. Therefore, Sai Wan villagers may still apply for such permits after the law change. The difference is that the applications will be reviewed by the Country and Marine Parks Board, which would take into consideration the impact on the environment, rather than the Town Planning Board currently.
On the second point, we note that many rural areas that were designated as part of a country park were subsequently linked up to water mains, and had drainage and sewerage facilities installed. Unlike other types of rural land, country park areas are managed by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. Hence, contrary to fears, the provision of basic services to villages might in fact improve if they are incorporated into country parks.
In a paper on the small house policy published earlier this year, Civic Exchange argued that rural planning policies, as well as comprehensive zoning plans for the whole of the New Territories, are critical to equitably balance the interest of indigenous villagers and the wider community.
While we wait for this to happen, incorporating such enclaves into country parks may help exert some much-needed planning controls. Given the unfettered manner in which small houses have been and are being built across the countryside, such a step should be encouraged.
Wilson Lau is a research and project officer at Civic Exchange