Giant Hong Kong columbarium plan blocked amid government opposition and local protests

Town Planning Board’s decision deals a blow to private sector plans to modernise burial facilities and tackle shortage of urn space

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 September, 2016, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 2016, 2:08am

The Town Planning Board has rejected a major developer’s proposal to convert a 15-storey industrial building on eastern Hong Kong Island into the city’s largest private columbarium, citing concerns about better utilisation of the space and uncertainty over legislation to regulate the trade.

Friday’s decision also means a dismissal of the private sector’s ambition to modernise the city’s burial facilities and to address the serious shortage of niches for people to store urns containing the ashes of their loved ones, amid a fast-greying population.

In opposing the scheme, the Planning Department said the conversion would exacerbate the short supply of industrial space in the area, which has a current vacancy rate of 0.8 per cent.

But applicant Kerry Warehouse – a subsidiary of Kerry Logistics Network – argued the plan would only sacrifice 0.2 per cent of the city’s total industrial gross floor area, while the 82,000 niche spaces created would reduce shortage of by one-fifth.

“We are not just taking the chance to remove a dangerous goods warehouse from the neighbourhood, but to also build a social facility to address dire public needs,” Kerry managing director William Ma Wing-kai said.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department had earlier predicted a shortfall of 400,000 niches by 2023. There are now about 50,000 deaths in Hong Kong each year.

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Even if the plan had been approved by the Town Planning Board, it would still have been subject to a licensing regime that is expected to be enforced through a legislative bill as early as next year. The Food and Health Bureau had warned that the operator “could not take for granted” that it would receive a licence.

Ahead of the board’s decision, Kerry legal representative Maggie Chan Man-ki accused government departments of “procedural injustice” in making “biased” representations to Eastern District Council only three days before the plan was put to a vote.

“What they did was equivalent to passing judgement before trial. We urge the Town Planning Board today to exercise its impartiality and discard the opinions from the district council,” she said.

Of the more than 12,000 public submissions to the board against the multibillion-dollar proposal, 97 per cent were opposed, citing traffic and environmental worries.

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Board members also took turns to voice their concerns. Sunny Ho Lap-kee asked if the plan could fully release the potential of the site. Ma responded by offering to explore the possibility of opening up the promenade running alongside the building, which is currently off limits.

Chinese University Urban Studies Programme director Ng Mee-kam said an innovative solution was needed to address the social dilemma posed by people’s reluctance to accommodate such facilities in their neighbourhoods.

“Building columbaria is everyone’s business, but we all seem to hold a not-in-my-backyard attitude,” she said. She suggested exploring the concept of “tokenistic memorials” – such as spreading ashes on garden lawns.

The unpopularity of the plan was evident when dozens of Chai Wan residents and politicians protested outside the Town Planning Board’s office in North Point ahead of its meeting on Friday. The decision is final and Kerry has no avenue for appeal.