Country park outskirts can be developed to alleviate Hong Kong's housing shortage, to the benefit of all

Lau Ping Cheung says a tiny portion of land bordering the country parks could be turned into housing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 July, 2015, 5:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 July, 2015, 5:26pm

For too long, society has been bogged down in a dispute on whether to release certain areas of Hong Kong's country parks for housing and other development purposes. While I agree that our country parks provide a respite from the daily hustle and bustle, acting as our city's lungs, nature reserves and leisure spaces, I also hold the belief that they are not untouchable. With careful and proper planning, development and preservation can co-exist.

Development in some carefully chosen fringe areas instead of the hearts of country parks would mean we avoid messing with the environment.

History tells us that the city's nine new towns - including Sha Tin and Tai Po, and which together house about half of Hong Kong's 7.24 million people - were built alongside or abutting ecologically non-sensitive outskirts of country parks. The same model can certainly be repeated for the next new town, especially in fringe locations of country parks with low ecological value that are sparsely vegetated and are relatively close to existing transport and other developed areas. These towns or estates can share existing infrastructure, as well as government and social/community facilities, making them relatively less expensive to develop within a shorter time span.

With these criteria in mind, I have identified about 170 hectares on the western fringe of Tai Lam Country Park that abuts the Tai Lam Tunnel's toll area. With proper planning, this land could be used to build about 30,000 housing units (based on a 6:4 ration, for 18,000 public and 12,000 private housing units) or about 21/2 times the size of Tai Koo Shing.

It's about time we stopped dwelling on the moral high ground and getting stuck in the cycle of disputes

It's easily accessible via the Route 3 Country Park Section by constructing new access roads and infrastructure, and it is only 1.5km from the Kam Sheung Road MTR station, where Kam Tin South development is being proposed for about 34,000 housing units with a shopping mall, schools and other facilities on 152 hectares.

The fact that country parks are all government-owned and would therefore eliminate all land acquisition compensation and disputes also means that the cost to build infrastructure on this land should be about HK$8 billion to HK$9 billion. That means the per-unit infrastructure cost would be just about HK$300,000.

If we add approximately HK$800,000 to HK$1 million of construction cost per unit for public housing, and other outlay, each housing unit would cost just about HK$1.5 million. Given proper planning, the whole development could be completed in about five to seven years if the idea and the due process are shared and supported by the various stakeholders.

By comparison, housing plans for the controversial Northeast New Territories, which commenced as early as 1998, are considerably less cost-effective and time-efficient: the housing units aren't expected to be ready until about 2023 even if everything goes according to plan.

One also needs to bear in mind the high land-acquisition compensation that will be required for all the vested interests in the area and the disputes so involved. With all these complexities, high infrastructure costs for the 60,000 flats planned for Northeast New Territories is estimated to cost about HK$100 billion to HK$150 billion, or about HK$2 million per unit, exclusive of housing construction costs.

Some people argue that brownfield sites - currently being used as recycling yards for stocking container boxes and so on - should be developed first before touching country parks. But they have chosen to ignore that most brownfield sites are privately owned, piecemeal and sporadic, making it hard for comprehensive new town development, as integrated infrastructure and facilities have to be created. And then there is the acquisition of land ownership, negotiation, disputes and compensation, not to mention the time cost involved. Even if all of these issues are resolved, there is still the problem of relocating the facilities of the current operations, be they recycling yards or container boxes.

With 40 per cent of Hong Kong's 1,105.6 sq km, or 44,300 hectares, being preserved as country parks, we mustn't forget that more than 270,000 families are on the waiting list for rental public housing, plus 85,000 households are living in mostly illegally subdivided units (totalling about one million people), and housing prices are unaffordably high.

If 170 of the 44,300 hectares allocated for country parks - a mere 0.4 per cent - could provide homes for 30,000 families, imagine what would happen if we could find 10 such areas. We would be able to provide about 300,000 flats.

Sure, there will be objections from environmental groups, there will be the need for consultations with district councils, the country park boundary under the Country Parks Ordinance will need to be redrawn, and approval under the Town Planning Ordinance will need to be obtained, but it's about time we stopped dwelling on the moral high ground and getting stuck in the cycle of disputes.

As someone who spent his childhood living in the squatter area on the hillside outskirts of Quarry Bay Country Park in Shau Kei Wan, and who still relishes the fond memories of days spent swimming in the rock ponds and playing with other kids inside country parks, I believe we need to engage society in an objective, sensible and scientific dialogue to unleash new land supply to give those one million people among us a better living place and for other community facilities.

We may also want to ask ourselves whether leaving the country parks untouched really serves the best interests of Hongkongers. Besides public housing for rental purposes, how about selling some of those public housing flats built on the fringe of country parks at a cost without land premium to those who are qualified for subsidised housing? Wouldn't these people living near the country parks have a better enjoyment of the flora and fauna?

Lau Ping Cheung is a member of the Economic Development Commission cum convenor of its working group on professional services