Approval rate up for developing agricultural land into brownfield sites, Hong Kong study shows

But no brownfield site was identified for potential housing development

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 8:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 8:32am

The approval rate for applications to develop unused agricultural land into brownfield sites surged from 71 per cent in 2008 to 88 per cent last year, a Hong Kong World Wide Fund study shows.

The study also found that of 192 potential housing sites identified by the Development Bureau, 78 were green belt sites – heavily vegetated areas normally reserved as a buffer between built-up and environmentally fragile areas – 58 were government, institutional and community land, and 24 were open space.

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It further found that no brownfield site – abandoned agricultural land legally or illegally developed for operations such as car parks, container storage space or recycling yards – was identified for potential housing development.

WWF research officer Ken Chan Hon-ki said the government in 2008 introduced a guideline for the Town Planning Board to fast-track applications to turn unused land into brownfields, leading to the increase in the approval rate.

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Chan said the guideline came at a time when the city’s logistics industry was at its prime. But he said the city’s annual cargo volume had dropped by 18 per cent since 2008, meaning that the demand for brownfields would not have been increasing.

He said the guideline, No 13E under the board’s guidelines, had been out of date and should be scrapped.

The cargo volume is very representative and can reflect society’s demand for brownfield sites
Ken Chan Hon-ki, WWF

“Businesses such as open storage and recycling are all related to logistics, so the cargo volume is very representative and can reflect society’s demand for brownfield sites,” he said. “Now that the logistics sector has been declining significantly, and today society needs more land for housing, guideline 13E is outdated and incompatible with the public interest.”

Under 13E, undeveloped land is divided into four categories. The first category is already zoned for open storage or industrial uses and considered suitable for brownfield operations; the second refers to areas without clear zoning but deemed suitable for brownfield uses as long as there are no objections from stakeholders; the third involves areas not recommended but not impossible for brownfield development and with stringent development conditions; and the fourth covers areas with ponds, wetland or extensive vegetation on which development is usually rejected.

Chan said before the guidelines’ introduction, planning board members processed each brownfield development application by studying the surrounding environment of the involved sites. But after the guideline, members often only referred to the categories to make a quick decision without considering whether the development would be consistent with the surroundings.

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He cited as an example an approved brownfield site in San Tin near Lok Ma Chau, which was surrounded by ponds and heavily vegetated areas. Another brownfield site in Tai Tong in Yuen Long, he said, was surrounded by residential buildings.

An earlier study by the Liber Research Community found there were 1,200 hectares of brownfields across Hong Kong last year. There is no official data on brownfield sites to date.

The government has promised to start a comprehensive, citywide brownfield study next year. It is expected to be completed in mid-2018.