Time bomb ticking in New Territories over new town development plan

Chaotic scenes at weekend Sheung Shui forum could be just a foretaste of resentment caused by government's controversial development plan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 3:53am

The proposed development of new towns in the northeastern New Territories has set the government on course for another round of large-scale confrontations, potentially involving thousands of demonstrators.

That prospect became evident in Sheung Shui on Saturday, when Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po's consultation forum on the plan drew 6,000 protesters, many of whom were vehemently opposed to the plan, leading to scuffles with those who were in favour.

Unlike the movement that successfully challenged the government's plans to introduce a mandatory national education subject, opponents of the administration on this issue include a range of conflicting interests, from landlords and developers to villagers, tenants and officials.

Data available in the public domain, including developers' annual reports, town-planning submissions and villagers' records, suggests private developers hold at least 70 hectares of the 168 hectares of residential land planned for new towns in Kwu Tung North, Fanling North, Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling.

At 40 per cent of the residential land planned in the new towns, the figure points to the considerable influence over the project wielded by its five known private developers - Henderson Land, Sun Hung Kai Properties, New World Development, Cheung Kong (Holdings) and Henry Fok's family. Then there is Lin Jianchun , a mainlander suspected of being a Hong Kong developer's agent.

The plans may have encountered less opposition from New Territories residents if the government had not changed its development approach, in the latest round of consultation, from building the new towns in consultation with them to taking away their land.

Also, losing the opportunity to monopolise the plan to build the new towns has forced developers such as Henderson Land to rush their plans instead, making the new towns more fragmented.

Developers are not the only stakeholders concerned with the profits to be made. Indigenous villagers who own both abandoned wetlands and active farmland falling within the designated area - including some rural leaders from the Heung Yee Kuk - have declared their support for the government's plan.

But evictions have begun of those who are non-indigenous, including young villagers engaged in community farming.

Those forced out include about 30 families living in squatter settlements in Ma Shi Po, Fanling, whose land is already in the hands of Henderson Land.

The fact that some land has been eaten up by big developers has introduced more complications by increasing conflicts among non-indigenous villagers.

Backed by rights activists who have called for the development of new towns to be shelved, most non-indigenous villagers say 2,100 hectares of vacant government land should be used first.

"We are facing a dilemma," said Kwan Hon-kwai, a Ma Shi Po resident for almost 50 years.

"Of course, I want no removal and no demolition. I want to tell the government to scrap the blueprint. But if we chant such a slogan we will have to face the developer alone, which will be even more horrible," Kwan said.

"If officials are in charge, at least they would think of relocation arrangements for us, but the developer would not."

Kwan is just one of 6,000 non-indigenous villagers affected by the plan, but activists believe there could be 10,000.

Social worker Wu Wai-hung said some of the families facing eviction from Ma Shi Po and nearby Tin Ping Shan Tsuen have launched lawsuits against mainland investor Lin. They are disputing the land titles, as they have not been given full records of his purchases made in 2005.

Other opponents of at least part of the development include 29 green groups, who are urging the government to protect farmland from redevelopment.

While the government said the new towns will take away only 22 hectares of active agricultural land, the environmentalists estimated a total loss of 98 hectares.

In a bid to win support for the project, both development and housing chiefs handed out "sweeteners" to almost all stakeholders. These include measures such as providing subsidised housing and designating flats for Hongkongers in the new towns. A new MTR station is being considered at Ta Kwu Ling, where new industries are to be located.

Chan, the development secretary, said he would reconsider co-developing some of the new towns with developers and find new land for displaced farmers.

And a source close to the Development Bureau said it was considering lowering the threshold of compensation so that non-indigenous people who moved into villages only a few years ago could also benefit.

Despite such measures, critics of the plan say the government is still far from addressing their concerns, particularly the discrepancy in figures provided by Chan.

He told a public forum that the government held 2,100 hectares of vacant land, 1,200 hectares of which had been designated for building village houses.

But he could not say how much of the remaining 900 hectares was suitable for housing.

And his disclosure that 60 per cent of the land was destined to fulfil the right of male indigenous villagers to a three-storey house has led to calls from housing experts to review the controversial small-house policy.

Among the suggestions made was to offer villagers a flat of similar size instead of a piece of land, making for more urban dwellers and reducing stress on developing farmland.

Ultimately, according to Chinese University geography professor Chau Kwai-cheong, the city needs an agricultural policy which sets aside a minimum proportion of land for farming.

He said: "Instead of solely relying on imported food, Hong Kong needs agricultural production to cope with natural disasters and global warming. The agricultural industry also offers jobs and breathing space."

However, he said, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has initiated only piecemeal agricultural measures.

These measures are currently split between the governance of the Environment Bureau and the Food and Health Bureau, and has too little say in protecting farmland from large infrastructural projects.

Most politicised of all are the public's fears of integration with the mainland, which activists say have yet to be fully addressed by Chan. Residents, particularly in the New Territories, fear the development plan is designed mainly for mainland visitors and investors, who will overwhelm the new border towns with their hot money, splashing out on real estate and daily necessities.

There are also fears, stemming from an idea raised by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and repeated by him after he won the election this year, that "one country, two systems" will collapse if visa-free access is given to mainlanders to visit the new towns and the border area.

Leung proposed turning part of the border area into a special economic zone aimed at mainlanders who want to shop, invest, study and receive medical care.

Government officials say the idea will not be applied to the new developments, which will provide job opportunities for local residents, but they have failed to be specific.

Professor Chan Kin-man, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at the Chinese University, said the government had failed to reassure the public by making clear who would ultimately benefit from the new town development.

"There's nothing wrong about integrating with the mainland," Chan said. "It would be irresponsible for the government to isolate Hong Kong from its motherland when other nations are taking the opportunities from the rising China. But they need to demonstrate that the city is not doing it blindly."

Chan of Chinese University said the integration should not go against the city's core values such as human rights and environmental protection. It should also allow Hong Kong to influence the mainland with its strengths, for example its legal system and food-safety monitoring system.

"The new government needs some credible academics and politicians to speak up for the plan. It must also demonstrate that the city will not give up its dignity for more economic gains," Chan said.