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Wang Chau housing saga

As Hong Kong brownfield site saga rolls on, calls rise to banish ‘wasteful use of land’

Scholars and lobbyists urge high-level government coordination to challenge land owners and industry interests favouring status quo

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 4:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 10:03pm

A half-hour minibus ride from the nearest train station and a 15-minute walk down an unkempt, dirt-covered path is the shortest trek to a squalid slice of land in the northwest New Territories.

In Tseung Kong Wai village near Tin Shui Wai, a maze of sprawling car parks, scrap yards and warehouses has been built thanks to stacks of containers lying around marking out the space and rows of ramshackle structures walled up with metal sheets. Flies hover and vehicles speed by, enveloping the place in a veil of white dust.

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Dr Ng Cho-nam, a former town planning board member and an associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong, said of the phenomenon: “In a city where the value of land is so high, it is amazing such a wasteful use of land still exists.”

The village houses one of Hong Kong’s numerous brownfield sites, or degraded agricultural land legally or illegally developed into open storage areas. In the absence of any official data, research last year by advocacy group Liber Research Community showed there were 1,192 hectares of brownfield sites in the city – equal to 60 Victoria Parks.

In a city where the value of land is so high, it is amazing such a wasteful use of land still exists
Dr Ng Cho-nam, HKU associate professor

Scholars and lobbyists contend interdepartmental coordination is necessary to tackle the problem at its source: namely, both increasing and better managing the supply of affordable venues for these recycling operations and cargo transportation businesses and providing them incentives to leave. At the same time, they say, the planning and lands authorities need to stop allowing industrial businesses to continue operating on the sites.

“There needs to be an interdepartmental task force involving high-level officials to deal with the issue as a whole,” Ng said. “There are many interest groups involved who want to maintain the status quo, such as land owners, industry interests and brownfield tenants. The government needs to have the political will to tackle the issue.”

With Hong Kong ranked as having the world’s least affordable housing market earlier this year for the sixth consecutive year, the government feels greater pressure to develop these brownfield sites before touching environmentally valuable green belt areas and country parks.

But for decades the government has looked the other way when it comes to brownfield development, citing an array of industrial activities operating on the sites, drawn by the large space available at cheaper rents.

It did not promise to conduct a city-wide study on brownfield sites until a recent public outrage over a government decision to prioritise a green belt site with three villages over a nearby brownfield site for a public housing development project in Wang Chau, Yuen Long. The government later admitted the decision was made after “informal” meetings with powerful rural leaders with vested interests in the brownfield site.

A government spokeswoman said the authorities would study the long-term prospect and demand of industries related to brownfield operations, such as the logistics, recycling, construction and car repairing industries. This would enable long-term land planning to allocate “extremely precious” land resources to these operations. She said a brownfield operation task force set up in 2014 would coordinate different bureaus and departments to work on the planning.

Multiple land ownership is a challenge when it comes to land resumption. The city’s brownfield sites are either collectively owned by hundreds or thousands of indigenous villagers, or by private individuals. Some are even owned by developers.

Liber’s research showed that 40 per cent of the brownfield sites were occupied by storage and recycling businesses, 26 per cent by container yards, 14 per cent by car parks and the remaining 20 per cent by unidentified businesses or abandoned.

This means at least the Development Bureau, Transport and Housing Bureau, Lands Department, Planning Department, and the Environmental Protection Department should work together, Ng said.

Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, director of the Hong Kong Recycle Materials and Reproduction Business General Association, said he suggested the government set aside spaces near the city’s three operating landfills for recycling businesses to reduce transport costs and prevent polluting garbage trucks from making extra trips.

Many people think recycling is a grubby business. But if the government is willing to support us, the industry can be clean and regulated
Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, Hong Kong Recycle Materials and Reproduction Business General Association

But he said local district councillors had strongly opposed the suggestion and that the government succumbed to the pressure.

“Many people think recycling is a grubby business,” Lau said. “But if the government is willing to support us, the industry can be clean and regulated.”

Lau acknowledged government efforts to set up a 20-hectare eco-park in Tuen Mun for recycling businesses. But he said tenants needed to build factories and buy equipment themselves, which would cost at least HK$30 million. This would be too high to benefit small and medium operations, he said.

Sites at the eco-park are put up for tendering, which means the more businesses offer, the more likely they are to get a site. One tenant at the park said he paid HK$180,000 a month for an 8,500 sq ft site, which is HK$21 per sq ft – a rate that is much higher than the brownfield rents.

Wong Tak-kee, who ran a plastic recycling business on a venue in Tseung Kong Wai from 2001 until he closed it last year, said brownfield sites cost as low as HK$2 per sq ft, which was why many recyclers moved in.

Tseung Kong Wai is included in a 714-hectare government development plan in Hung Shui Kiu, Yuen Long. The new area encompasses 190 hectares of brownfield site.

But due to increasing demand, brownfield rents have been on the rise as well. Wong said his landlord tripled the monthly rent for his 5,000 sq ft workshop from HK$10,000 to HK$30,000. This came just after he spent HK$600,000 in new waste processing equipment and amid a global downturn in the recycled plastic business, forcing him to halt operations.

Lau said the Environmental Protection Department called on the government to introduce as soon as possible a system of waste charging and recycling cost-sharing to encourage residents to recycle and generate revenues to support local recycling businesses.

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He added that up to 80 per cent of the recycling operations on brownfield sites were importing garbage from overseas, taking away valuable materials and dumping the rest of the garbage into landfills, which he said should not enjoy any support and deserve penalty for further pollution.

Ming Leung, whose business involves selling large garbage bins imported from overseas, rents a 4,000 sq ft warehouse in Tseung Kong Wai at HK$5 per sq ft. He said he moved there a year ago from an industrial building in Tsuen Wan, where the rent was HK$9 per sq ft. He said his business required large space to store the bins and easy access to transport them.

There’s no shortage of land for housing in Hong Kong, only a lack of will to act for the people

About 61 hectares are to be reserved for developing industrial buildings and logistics facilities for the affected businesses in Hung Shui Kiu under the government’s new town proposal. More details are expected to be released when the government’s consultancy study is completed in 2018.

Ng of HKU said industrial buildings and logistics centres along highways would be a cleaner, tidier and more efficient way to house the brownfield businesses. He added that the venues should be affordable enough to attract these operations and suggested the government only charge them rents equivalent to the venues’ basic operation and management costs.

“The government needs to take into consideration that society is paying more for inefficient land use and pollution,” he said.