In its revised plan for the northeastern New Territories, the government has considered, and res-ponded to, the public's concerns expressed in the third public engagement. The substantial increase in the population capacities for Kwu Tung North and Fanling North - by 30 per cent to 174,900 - has answered positively the voices of the majority in the community and will certainly help to ease, partly at least, the acute housing shortage.
For residents who will be affected by the development in the two areas, rehousing will be made easier as sites have been reserved in both Kwu Tung North and Fanling North. Special ex-gratia compensation packages, comparable to those under the express rail link and the Liangtang/Heung Yuen Wai boundary control point projects, are also included in the plan. These two measures should render the proposed development more readily acceptable.
There is evidence of more assistance to affected farmers. While the government estimates that about 28 hectares of active agricultural land will be affected, it has retained 37 hectares of land in Long Valley for a nature park and 58 hectares in Kwu Tung North and Fanling North for agricultural rehabilitation and re-siting. In addition, there is the option of another 34 hectares, suitable for farming, in Kwu Tung South. These options seem to provide sufficient sites for farmers to choose in the vicinity to suit their purpose.
The government has yet to spell out how the affected farmers will be compensated for their hardship, including possible economic loss due to the removal; compensation packages must be reasonable.
In allowing landowners who meet specific criteria to apply to modify the lease for private development, the government has stressed that a time limit will be set for completion. This will ensure that the purpose of private-sector participation, to achieve efficient provision of housing and other facilities, will be achieved.
While the government has increased the plot ratios in the new development areas to accommodate a significantly larger population, the extra housing will all be subsidised units (mainly public rental housing, with some Home Ownership Scheme apartments). The number of private units has in fact been marginally reduced.
In other words, those not eligible for subsidised housing won't benefit from the availability of a more densely populated living environment.
The government has not accorded the same priority to this "sandwich class", yet they are already paying ridiculously high rents or prices for their homes and are receiving little assistance from the government in other ways, either. Something has to be done for them.
Another concern is the future employment situation in these two new developments. Logically, with the rise in population, employment opportunities should have been increased accordingly. Yet, while the total planned population has been increased by 30 per cent, employment opportunities will be reduced by 9 per cent, from 41,400 to 37,700.
According to the public engagement report, the population-to-job ratio is planned to be 4.6:1, or about 22 per cent. Although this is similar to the ratios in Fanling and Sheung Shui, it is certainly not satisfactory because it means fewer than one quarter of the population will be able to find employment in the district. And, given the types of jobs planned for the two areas, the percentage may actually be lower.
In the plan, the only sizeable areas for economic activities are a 14-hectare "commercial, research and development zone" along Fanling Highway in Kwu Tung North and another eight hectares reserved for research and development in the northwest part of the area. Given that subsidised housing units have been increased to 60 per cent, what percentage of the residents will actually be equipped for these jobs, especially in research and development, remains to be seen.
Undoubtedly, the facilitation of research and development business in the new development areas is to be welcomed as it will help develop high-value-added, knowledge-intensive new industries for Hong Kong. But it should also be a priority to do whatever possible to ensure a reasonable ratio of local employment.
Of course, there's no way everyone can be employed in the area where they live - or for job opportunities to be guaranteed. The concept of "balanced development" doesn't work in Hong Kong and, therefore, cross-district employment is unavoidable. Yet not only will high transport costs take up a good portion of commuting workers' wages; the hours of daily travel will also deprive them of valuable family time, a bitter social problem that has been experienced in the past in Tuen Mun, for example. And this will affect lower income groups the most.
The government has emphasised that 80 per cent of the residents in the new development areas will live within 500 metres of public transport nodes, so it appears to be aware of the problem. Let's hope the government will study ways to help create more labour-intensive and low-skilled industries in these new development areas to cater for the employment needs of the grass roots, too.
Dr Peter K.S. Pun, honorary chairman of SD Advocates, a non-party-affiliated, private think tank, is a former director of the Planning Department