Hong Kong government ‘will look into reviewing private consultations on housing projects’
But Transport and Housing Secretary says such informal contact with stakeholders customary, while new lawmaker insists it is proof of a ‘government-business-triad collusion’
Hong Kong’s housing minister pledged on Thursday to look into a much-criticised practice of privately consulting powerful stakeholders before announcing details of development plans, as scholars warned such methods could lead to social divisions and biased decisions.
Concerns about such meetings, described by Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung as a “customary practice”, have been raised as the government sets aside a plan to build public housing on a brownfield site – environmentally damaged agricultural land – in Wang Chau in Yuen Long to prioritise developing a heavily vegetated green-belt site nearby. This was done after private exchanges with rural leaders accused of having links to triads and vested interests in the brownfield area.
But the private meetings excluded residents in three squatter villages on the green-belt site, who face being displaced and have vowed to fight against the development plan.
Planning experts questioned whether the government only listened to one side of the argument and worried such a practice would encourage those with power to get decisions in their favour. They urged the government to set up a long-term community-based consultation platform so officials would not need to resort to last-minute meetings over development plans.
After a meeting on Thursday with newly-elected lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who has been pursuing the brownfield development plan and is under police protection after receiving death threats, Cheung said it was “customary” to have informal contact with stakeholders, including district council and rural committee chairmen, about development projects.
He said the government would not normally keep records of such meetings.
“The [private] meetings themselves are not collusion,” Cheung said. “On whether there is room for review on the scale of the meetings, we can have another look at it.”
But Chu said such meetings were the proof of “collusion” between the government, businesses and triads.
The government on Thursday released the covers of 16 reports completed in 2014 on the feasibility of developing the brownfield, after much public outcry.
The reports cover areas such as privately owned land boundaries and environmental feasibility. The government said it would release the full reports, with sensitive information blotted out, later.
Pong Yuen-yee, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, said private meetings should not affect the principle of first developing brownfields and maintaining green-belts as environmental buffer zones.
Dr Ng Cho-nam, associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong, said private meetings were not a problem, but they should include voices from different sides, such as land owners, land users and environment concern groups.
“It’s very obvious that the government has been influenced by a certain side to make a decision perceived as biased,” Ng said. “[This] may encourage people to bully, cause strong social resentment and incur a very high political cost.”
Ng said some previous cases, such as the stalled Tuen Mun landfill expansion and the controversial location of a proposed incinerator at a site with high eco-value but few objections, were all examples of people using power to coerce the government into getting what they wanted.
Professor Ng Mee-kam, director of the urban studies programme at the Chinese University, said Hong Kong should have a long-term community-based platform to collect information such as each community’s development potential and different stakeholders’ views, so the government would instantly know what difficulties or opportunities it had without prolonged, last-minute consultations.