Last week, the government formally gave the go-ahead for the development of a man-made beach at Lung Mei. The announcement caused quite a stir among green groups that are concerned with the risk to marine species in the area. The area is home to some 200 marine and bird species, including three fish species of conservation concern.
The government said there was overwhelming public demand for a beach to serve the residents of Tai Po, Sha Tin and its neighbouring districts, which do not have a beach close by.
While it won't retract its plans for a beach, the government has offered to draw up a coastal plan for the long-term conservation of the wider Ting Kok area, extending to the whole of Tolo Harbour. The conciliatory gesture comes with what is promised to be a new "standard for public engagement", where the community can collaborate with the government on protection of ecologically valuable areas.
The coastal plan is, on its own, a positive move for Hong Kong. However, it is unfortunate that such promising conservation work only comes about as a means to offset the impact of a 200-metre stretch of artificial beach, which would destroy a breeding site for seahorses and displace numerous species that call the muddy coast along Lung Mei home.
This latest proposal comes in a long line of other plans where conservation is considered a means to justify development in areas of ecological value. Sha Lo Tung is an obvious recent example, where a developer that wants to build a columbarium on the site is to provide the funds to protect the valley, which includes a stream designated as a "site of special scientific interest", a statutory designation carrying a high degree of protection.
Such perverse incentives are not new. In fact, the idea to have development as a condition for conservation was endorsed by the government in its 2004 New Nature Conservation Policy, which proposed a public-private partnership that sought participation of private enterprises in conservation. However well-meaning the policymakers were, the policy, when implemented, would effectively allow development on some of the most ecologically valuable sites in Hong Kong.
A more responsible land policy is one that considers the development-conservation priorities in reverse. It makes sense to conserve ecologically important places, and open up those that are less so for other uses. However, this line between what may be developed, and what should not, is not always clear.
This is where values, goals and good data are essential. If we knew what Hong Kong people valued, we could set goals about how much of the environment to conserve. Good data keeps us informed before we assess values and set goals. These are prerequisites to good decision-making, but at present they are woefully inadequate in Hong Kong. Civic Exchange's recent report, "Protecting Sites of Ecological Value: A Guide for Decision-makers", maps out how such value could be assessed.
The Lung Mei decision was yet another reminder of how desperately government officials are in need of such tools in order to make land-use decisions that are both equitable and environmentally sound.
Wilson Lau is research and projects co-ordinator at Civic Exchange