Objectors to the northeastern New Territories development plan were urged yesterday to present their cases in groups through representatives to limit the length of a Town Planning Board hearing that could otherwise last 2-1/2 years.
The rare appeal to opponents, who have lodged a record 53,000 objections to the plan for two new towns, came from board deputy chairman Stanley Wong Yuen-fai. Wong said he did not want to see rules tightened due to the number of objections.
"We should treasure the liberal process and it shouldn't be tightened just because of the large number of opposite views," he said.
Board members will be asked to decide today whether the public comments should be considered individually or collectively.
Wong urged objectors who held similar views to pick a representative to speak on their behalf.
His appeal was rejected by a representative of villagers in Kwu Tung, whose homes will have to make way for one of the new towns. Lee Siu-wah said more than 1,000 villagers had submitted their views and a collective presentation would deprive them of their right to speak.
"Our villagers are unique," he said. "They have different expectations and difficulties."
The 53,000 objections to the towns in Kwu Tung North and Fanling North are almost double the previous record total of 28,000 received for plans to rezone and develop the former Lee Wai Lee campus in Kowloon Tong earlier this year.
Hearing rules allow objectors 10 minutes to present their views.
If the board sits for 10 hours a day as it has in past hearings, it will be able to hear 60 submissions a day, meaning it would need more than 880 days to hear all objections individually.
In a paper submitted for the board's discussion, the Planning Department said the objections could be categorised into four groups: transport, conservation, land use and general matters.
"I don't want to see the hearing process create another controversy," Wong, the board's most senior non-official member, told the South China Morning Post. "I don't want to set a precedent. It won't do any good for Hong Kong people in future."
Board member Patrick Lau Hing-tat said the board's operation should be overhauled in the long run. He said decision-making could be decentralised by setting up more district-level committees to examine projects.
Quoting advice from UN urban-planning experts, Lau said the committees could look more specifically into the demands of local communities and reduce confrontation between the public and the government. "It can also avoid filibusters paralysing the board's operations," he said.
Former board member and University of Hong Kong urban-planning professor Dr Ng Cho-nam said it might be difficult for committees to make consistent decisions. But he agreed the board was overloaded.
"The public is only given two channels - the environmental impact assessment and the Town Planning Board - to express discontent about new developments, which seldom address the social impacts," he said.
"It's time to consider if we need a new mechanism looking into social implications."
Villagers vowed to take their fight to the board after three protests outside the Legislative Council failed to persuade lawmakers to reject a government request for preliminary funding for the development plan.