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Urban planning

Hong Kong could learn lessons from London King’s Cross redevelopment project to solve housing crisis, planning expert says

University of Hong Kong academic says UK project where half of some 2,000 homes must be ‘affordable’ could be a way forward for a local project involving 1,000 hectares of farmland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 9:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 9:00am

A massive urban redevelopment project in London where half of the flats must be set aside for low-income families may offer ideas for Hong Kong officials mulling co-development of some 1,000 hectares of farmland with private firms to ease the local housing crisis, a planning expert said.

Professor Rebecca Chiu Lai-har, head of the University of Hong Kong’s department of urban planning and design, was referring to the King’s Cross development in the British capital, with half of some 2,000 homes in the project being affordable, as required by an agreement between the developer Argent and London authorities.

Chiu said private developers in Hong Kong held some 1,000 hectares of farmland in the New Territories, but had been unable to proceed due to a lack of infrastructure and the high cost of changing the land use for residential development.

This meant the government could control the conversation if it wanted to collaborate with the developers in releasing the land, the academic claimed.

“The government holds the power to allow developers to build on their farmland.”

For example, officials could use building infrastructure for the sites as a bargaining chip and require the developers to sell part of the land back to the government for developing affordable housing.

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“The selling price could be up for negotiation,” Chiu said. “It’s better than leaving so much land vacant.”

In her policy address last October, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proposed to collaborate with private developers to provide affordable housing for first-time buyers in the city, as part of her effort to boost ownership in the world’s most expensive housing market.

The selling price could be up for negotiation. It’s better than leaving so much land vacant
Professor Rebecca Chiu, HKU

Many have speculated that the proposal might pave the way for tapping into private developers’ vast land reserves in the New Territories.

These reserves are also one of 17 proposals to be included in a consultation exercise by the Task Force on Land Supply to solve the city’s shortage of 1,200 hectares of land for housing and economic development by 2030. The public will be invited to give its opinions on which proposals should be prioritised in a five-month consultation expected to begin on April 15.

Peter Bishop, an urban design professor at the University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture and a planner behind the King’s Cross project, said including affordable housing in the project would create a mixed community.

“Mixed communities are more stable economically,” Bishop told the Post during a recent trip to Hong Kong. “[A community] where schools are socially mixed, where the local health centre is socially mixed, where kids play together in a park without feeling as if you have to protect them from the kids from a different neighbourhood, is in my view a lot stronger. We should really try and make it happen.”

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Bishop said as the percentage of affordable housing went up in a society, the land value was bound to be depressed.

“We are only saying we can’t afford [higher percentage of affordable housing] because people think they have a right to walk away with super land profits,” he said. “That is the decision you make about how important your social policies are against the obvious need [of developers to make money].”

King’s Cross, a former industrial area, is being redeveloped into a mix of luxury and affordable homes, offices, including Google’s UK headquarters, and shops.

Chiu said Tin Shui Wai was an example of boosting land value in the expense of a mixed community. She said the district was dominated by public rental housing estates for the poorest because many subsidised housing estates planned to be sold to the middle class were turned into rental housing in 2003, when the city was hit by a property market crash.

To boost land value, the government announced a suspension of both building and selling affordable flats at the time.

“This is not good planning,” Chiu said. “From the perspective of an urban planner and social scientist, mixed communities are better because it’s more inclusive and open-minded, and poorer residents can gain upward social mobility.”

For a long time, Tin Shui Wai was called “city of tears” for its poverty and high suicide rate.

Roger Nissim, a former senior Lands Department official, said about 29 per cent of Hong Kong’s population lived in public rental housing and another 14.5 per cent in subsidised homes sold to the middle class.

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“There was a slowdown in production [of subsidised flats] between 2003 and 2013 so we now need to get back into full gear,” Nissim said.

He believed officials should press ahead with as many subsidised public housing estates as possible to solve the city’s affordability problem.

But he said private developers’ land bank might not be a place for such projects “because of the negative politics of the government doing deals with developers”.