Benefits outweigh costs of northeast New Territories development

Bernard Chan says even though some may lose out, housing is needed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Protesters will probably be outside the Legislative Council in force today for the third week running, as the Finance Committee continues discussions on funding for development in the northeast New Territories. This plan has become another battle between the government and opposition.

If the proposed new towns involved serious social injustice or environmental damage, opposition would be understandable. The same would be true if the plans were aimed at enriching some vested interests - like developers - and not at benefiting the wider community.

But this is not the case. True, around 1,000 households will have to move. When you consider that many are living in unauthorised buildings on government land, they are being offered pretty fair compensation packages. Obviously, many would prefer to stay where they are. But these plans will benefit the whole community. We are talking about housing for 175,000 Hong Kong people, with 60 per cent of the units being public rental or subsidised.

The government is putting a lot of work into ensuring existing residents are treated fairly. Residents of old-people's homes will have new premises to move into. Officials are even looking for replacement land for those who wish to continue farming.

Most opponents of the plans are not residents of the area. Many are young activists from elsewhere - indeed, many probably live in areas developed out of farmland in past decades.

If you weigh the costs and benefits of the project, it should be obvious that the plan makes sense on the whole. The inconvenience suffered by some will be outweighed by the benefits to many more.

Opponents could propose alternatives. Maybe they could find land elsewhere - though officials are having serious problems doing so. Or you could reduce population growth by curbing immigration from the mainland, if you don't mind preventing cross-border family reunions. However, these activists are not in the business of constructive criticism. What is driving them? Some are apparently driven by hatred of the administration and the political structure. But many seem to have specific objections to the development. Looking at their arguments, they are extremely suspicious of the government's intentions.

Some seem to see a plot to destroy Hong Kong's farming and therefore our ability to be self-sufficient. In fact, the plans involve only a small percentage of our total agricultural land, but that's not really the point. A city of this size will always have to import nearly all its food.

Some see a secret plan to create a zone for mainland people and interests. We know that some aspects of mainland integration, like cross-border traders, have created unforeseen problems. The idea that officials are now going to "cede land to Shenzhen" - as some protesters are claiming - is crazy.

Maybe the most serious charge is that the plans are designed to enrich property developers. Activists complain that some past redevelopments, like Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai, produced only luxury homes. But the northeast New Territories plan is about homes for ordinary people.

Opponents also say that development will raise the value of nearby land, some of which is owned by big property groups. The impact of infrastructure on land values is a fact of life: the effect of new MTR stations on rents is well known. But benefits to existing land owners are hardly a reason to oppose development.

Essentially, opponents need to ask themselves if there is a serious alternative. They must know we need more living space. Inevitably, this project will produce some relative winners and losers. But it will also provide many Hong Kong people with affordable homes, a decent living environment and good transport connections. The community as a whole will win.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council