Hong Kong housing

Legal barrier looms over plan to build on edges of Hong Kong’s country parks

Former adviser says housing does not satisfy the ‘compelling need’ stated in ordinance to allow development and that there are other solutions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 10:41pm

An expert on Hong Kong’s country parks has warned that backing a proposal to build flats on the periphery of green zones would breach conservation laws and damage the city’s urban-rural buffer.

But government ministers again defended a move to invite the Housing Society to conduct feasibility studies for subsidised housing on two 20-hectare sites on the fringes of Tai Lam and Ma On Shan parks.

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Professor Chau Kwai-cheong, who headed the Country and Marine Parks Board from 2003 to 2007, said any such plan would theoretically breach the Country Park Ordinance, which states a “presumption against development” in any areas unless there is “compelling need”.

This would apply even to areas of lower ecological value, he said.

Such work is usually only allowed for amenities such as electricity pylons or service reservoirs.

“You don’t have to assess whether there are any rare species in these areas. The fringes of parks serve as a buffer to slow down urban encroachment,” Chau told the Post.

“The board must uphold the point of ‘presumption against development’ [when consulted]. The scale of a housing project is far too large and will destroy the integrity of the parks.”

Chau said housing was not a compelling reason because there were other solutions such as tweaking population policy and freeing brownfield sites – deserted agricultural or rural land already developed for use – and fallow land.

The board’s current chairman, former police commissioner Tang King-shing, acknowledged society was split on the matter but distanced himself from the political hot potato.

“We are a consultative body. As chairman, it is not appropriate for me to express any views, especially at this point when the study hasn’t even started.”

The board must be consulted on any proposed changes to country park boundaries or the ordinance.

Dr Michelle Cheung Ma-shan, science manager of the Eco-Education and Resources Centre, said even if the area was deemed to be of low ecological value, they were important “green corridors” connecting less ecologically rich areas to higher value ones.

“Disconnecting them would throw the ecosystem off balance,” she said.

Both parks are key natural water catchment areas and boast a diversity of flora and fauna, including pangolins and barking deer. Tai Lam is the site of plantation forests grown to rehabilitate it from hill fires.

A catastrophic hill fire in 2006 charred hundreds of hectares and destroyed 66,000 trees.

Development minister Eric Ma Siu-cheung dismissed claims that the government was trying to avoid having to outsource the work and bypass legislative scrutiny.

He said the Housing Society had approached the government with the choice of sites after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying floated the idea in his January policy address. Ma believed it was a “good suggestion” as the sites were of low ecological value and public enjoyment.

Environment chief Wong Kam-sing said overall government policy on parks “would not change” but “a little objective discussion is not a bad thing for Hong Kong”.

He said regardless of the results of the study, the area and quality of country parks would “only get better and better” and stressed his bureau would act as a “gatekeeper”.