Two government departments have been accused of striking a "secret deal" to divide up 54 threatened rural enclaves, incorporating half of them into country parks and leaving the rest open for possible development.
The accusations came after an Audit Commission report disclosed that the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department decided in 2010 to fold 27 of the sites into their surrounding parks and hand the rest over to the Planning Department for statutory planning.
The commission urged the AFCD to set a timetable for designating the chosen enclaves to become part of the parks after noting that the process had begun for only three of them.
"The AFCD's progress … was not entirely satisfactory," it said.
Paul Zimmerman, of Designing Hong Kong and a co-convenor of the Save Our Country Parks alliance, said the report had come as "quite a shock".
"It means the AFCD and Planning Department struck a secret deal in 2010 to divide the enclaves without having informed anybody," he said.
But the AFCD said the decision on the 27 enclaves had been based only on "preliminary" assessments.
"The identified enclaves were subject to detailed assessment on their suitability for designation as country parks," it said. "In fact, it was the AFCD's intention to assess all the 54 enclaves to identify suitable ones for incorporation into country parks."
The 54 enclaves - areas adjacent to, or surrounded by, country park boundaries that do not come under the protection of the Country Parks Ordinance - were identified amid a row over unauthorised excavation of one of them, Tai Long Sai Wan on a stretch of scenic Sai Kung coast.
Three years after the 2010 decision, the designation process has begun for only the Tai Long Sai Wan site and others at Kam Shan and Yuen Tun. The fate of the remaining 24 hangs in the air as rural leaders press for all of them to stay outside the parks.
Meanwhile, of the 27 handed over to the Planning Department, the statutory planning process has begun for at least 23.
Zimmerman said there was no information on any assessment of the 54 enclaves.
"We're running out of time because if the AFCD doesn't protect the enclaves, the only way to protect them is through outline zoning plans and this will allow them to be developed," he said.
"All 54 enclaves should be covered by the Country Parks Ordinance, but now the whole community is stuck with this and nothing can be changed," Zimmerman said.
The commission also urged the ACFD to "revisit strategy" and move forward with the designation of new country parks. According to the report, 14 sites were identified as potential country parks as early as 1993, but only five have been designated.