The government consultation on plans for three new towns in the northeastern New Territories was orderly and reasoned when it began four years ago. Hong Kong's limited area necessitated development near border areas and the benefits were obvious. But there has since been a shift in sentiment towards mainland integration, and a weekend forum to allay the concerns of those affected was chaotic, with tempers high. This is not a matter like national education that authorities can backtrack on, though. Our city's future growth depends on such projects going ahead.
Unlike national education, developing new towns is complicated, with many interest groups, including villagers, property developers and farmers. Each group is divided in its support. Among the villagers, for example, there are those who would gladly sell their land, others who would move out only if the terms are right and a hardcore who have no intention of budging. Among developers, those with plots want to be compensated not just for land at market value, but at lost investment potential. Then there are those not directly affected, who decry the perceived "mainlandisation" of Hong Kong.
Meeting the demands of all involved is not possible. This is a major project, involving 10,000 residents and almost 800 hectares of land. The aim is to build 53,800 homes for 152,000 people. At least HK$40 billion in public funds will be needed to purchase the land. Development secretary Paul Chan Mo-po was right to suggest that, given the concerns, a percentage of the flats have to be set aside just for Hong Kong buyers.
Sensitivities have to be taken into account. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sparked fears in June when he said people from the mainland should be able to enter Hong Kong's border areas - near the proposed new towns - without a visa. The government's caving in to pressure against multi-entry visitor permits for an extra 4.1 million Shenzhen residents shows its readiness to listen. That means allowing all sides to air views, giving them careful consideration, weighing options, being transparent and going forward without unreasonable haste.
But there can be no turning back. Our population is increasing and we need more space for businesses and to innovate. The nine new towns developed since the late 1960s prove what can be achieved; Sha Tin, for one, has been a resounding success. The guiding development principle has to be the common good - and of this project, there is no doubt.