The Development Bureau came under fire yesterday for being unable to give details about how much of its vacant land was available for housing.
On Saturday, bureau chief Paul Chan Mo-po told a chaotic public forum that it had 2,100 hectares, of which 1,200 was designated for building village houses. But yesterday the bureau could not say exactly how much of this would be available for building flats. One source close to the bureau said the figure was less than 400 hectares.
The bureau also could not explain big discrepancies in stated figures for the total extent of residential sites across the city.
The lack of such information amid the controversy over the government's proposed new town developments that will displace 6,000 villagers in the New Territories was criticised by housing specialists yesterday.
Chan cited the figures to a rowdy audience in Sheung Shui on Saturday in an effort to show that the displacement of villages and farms for the three planned new towns near the border was needed for housing.
The vagueness was criticised as "unacceptable" by Dr Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, a specialist in real estate at City University. "How can the government know to what extent it is short of land? It will be even harder for the government to convince the public that it must obtain more land from reclamation and removing farmland."
Figures released by the bureau to the Legislative Council in July revealed that the government had 2,154 hectares of vacant land designated for residential developments, mostly in Yuen Long, Sha Tin, Sai Kung and Tuen Mun. But Chan said most of the vacant land was unusable because close to 60 per cent was designated for village-type development under the New Territories small house policy and some was road or man-made slope.
The source close to the bureau said the government had yet to find out how much of the vacant land could be developed. "We haven't gone through the list yet. We are looking at it one by one and so far we only know that land suitable for development will be less than 400 hectares."
Further questions have been raised by the conflicting figures on the total number of residential sites, developed and undeveloped, with 7,600 hectares cited by the Civil Engineering and Development Department and 9,800 by the bureau that oversees it. The bureau also could not explain these figures yesterday.
The government has highlighted the lack of land over the past few months in its two public consultations on building up its land bank by methods including reclamation and developing the three northeastern new towns, at Kwu Tung North, Fanling North, and Ping Che together with Ta Kwu Ling.
The small house policy gives male indigenous villagers the right to build a 2,100 sq ft, three-storey house. Yet only 168 hectares in the new towns will be used to build flats. Poon said the government should consider giving flats to villagers instead of land for building houses.
Veteran property researcher Professor Edward Yiu Chung-yim of the University of Hong Kong said the land reserved for village houses reflected the government's strategic approach to handling villagers' interests. "The vacant land could have been an alternative before developing new towns," he said.