Hong Kong's top sports officials have hit out strongly at the government for looking to move the proposed sports hub at Kai Tak to Sunny Bay on Lantau Island, saying it would be going back on the promise to provide the city with a world-class sporting and recreational centre.
Terry Smith, deputy chairman of the government's Major Sports Events committee and a member of the Sports Commission, said: "It will be an absolute disaster and would seriously undermine government plans to foster sport and develop Hong Kong into the events capital of Asia."
Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, said: "It will be a big mistake if they decide to press ahead and move the sports hub from Kai Tak to Lantau. It's not only the sports community which will be affected by this move, because this was supposed to be a recreation and tourism hub, too."
A shortage of public housing has led to suggestions in certain government quarters that the land allocated at Kai Tak for the sports hub be used to build flats. Despite a sports hub at Kai Tak being official government policy, with both the former and current chief executives publicly supporting it, the pressure for a re-think has been gaining momentum.
The transport and housing secretary, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, said last weekend that the site had room for more flats. His comment came after the development secretary, Paul Chan Mo-po, granted a review of the plan last month. Another key government adviser, Michael Choi Ngai-min, who sits on the long-term housing strategy steering committee, has also suggested that the number of new homes at the Kai Tak site be doubled to 70,000 units.
All this has led to voracious eyes being cast towards the 20 hectares approved by public consultation and government committe for a 50,000-seater stadium with a retractable roof as well as a 6,000-seater secondary stadium and a 5,000-seat indoor stadium. The entire cost for the project at Kowloon East was expected to be HK$19 billion.
Hong Kong's Olympic chief, Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, who is also the vice-chairman of the Sports Commission, said it was very disappointing that the government was thinking of building extra housing at Kai Tak.
"We were promised a new sports hub at Kai Tak by the government and this was something which would have been for the good of not only sports, but the whole community. To find out now that this might not materialise is very disappointing and we are extremely concerned. We ask why the government cannot keep its commitment to the people," Fok said.
A senior Home Affairs Bureau official, Jonathan McKinley, however, said the plan to build at Kai Tak was still on the cards. He said yesterday: "We understand that the sports community is keen to see the realisation of the plan for the long-awaited sports complex at Kai Tak and accordingly we are working with the Sports Commission to determine the best way of procuring and financing the complex. Our aim is to have the Kai Tak sports complex fully completed by 2019-20."
All the same, the attempts by the housing sector to encroach on the Kai Tak land has fanned fears among the sports community that big property developers have influenced the government to change its plans.
Smith said: "We are extremely upset. Although we have not yet received concrete proposals from the government, it is widely understood in the sporting community that the government is seriously considering releasing the site at Kai Tak for development purposes."
The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, which stands to be the biggest loser in any further delay - the union has plans to host a couple of games of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan at the Kai Tak venue - said a move to Lantau might result in a new stadium never being built.
Gregory said: "It may never happen in North Lantau. We will have to go through all the public consultation process, get approval from all the environment people et cetera and it could drag on forever. And if we don't get permission, it will be too late to go back to Kai Tak because flats will have been built already."
Kwan Kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association, also panned the idea: "A stadium of international standard must be convenient to get to and we have always thought that Kai Tak is best suited for that."