An independent lobby group of professionals is urging the government to first develop underused and polluted rural sites - which together make up an area equivalent to half of the Kowloon peninsula - before resorting to reclamation.
These 'brownfield' sites would provide a quicker solution to the land shortage problem than reclamation, which the government is proposing, The Professional Commons said yesterday.
Such sites cover 803 hectares and are concentrated in four districts: Yuen Long, Northern District, Tuen Mun and Tai Po, according to research conducted by the group. The term brownfield refers to sites left idle or abandoned after industrial or commercial use, where soil, groundwater and streams are contaminated.
'While brownfield is an important concept in land development in the United States and the United Kingdom, our government doesn't keep the data and often mixes up brownfield sites with abandoned agricultural land,' Chan Kim-ching, a researcher from the group, said.
The Professional Commons spent a month using geographical data to locate the sites on an aerial photo of the New Territories taken by the Lands Department in November.
The mapping exercise found 463 of the 803 hectares were being used for waste storage and sorting purposes. Another 178 hectares were occupied by cargo containers and the rest are being used as car parks or for container truck parking.
Chan said overseas governments that kept track of brownfield sites put priority on reusing them before opening up undisturbed land so as to protect the environment.
'These sites are not efficiently used. They could be used for housing and other purposes,' Chan said, citing data from the Transport and Housing Bureau, which showed freight movement by road in and out of Hong Kong had been steadily declining after dropping below 40 million tonnes a year in 2004.
The government told lawmakers last month that it did not have comprehensive statistics on brownfield sites available for development.
It does have records of the number of land grants for open storage, car parks, container yards and vehicle repair workshops, but documents showed that such uses in the New Territories add up to only 206 hectares - just a quarter of the amount of land the group's research found.
The discrepancy was probably because of illegal operations that escaped the notice of officials, Chan said.
Group chairman Albert Lai Kwong-tak said brownfield sites would be a more efficient option than reclamation to create new land for housing. 'You save the land formation work. No one lives on those sites and you don't need to think about relocation. What you need to do is to buy the land,' Lai said.
He also said the government should devise a strategy to make use of these sites, and revisit proposals to concentrate cargo storage in a 'container city', instead of allowing it to be scattered around the New Territories. 'The government has said that by opening up just 1 per cent more of Hong Kong's land, an additional one million people can be accommodated. We are talking 803 hectares; close to the 1 per cent.'
The public consultation on reclamation will close at the end of this month.
The number of sites the government has proposed for reclamation to boost the land available for housing development