Institute urges Hong Kong’s Town Planning Board to speed up land-use approvals process

Research conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors concludes that the slow pace of processing town planning applications is having a negative impact on the supply of developable sites for residential purposes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 3:01pm

It’s about time the Town Planning Board cut the red tape and speed up the pace of land-use approvals so that more homes could be built at a quicker pace, the influential Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors has urged.

Research by the institute shows that the present pace of processing town planning applications is slowing down the supply of developable sites for residential purposes.

In Hong Kong, the board is the statutory body responsible for preparing plans for specific areas, creating layouts for them, and deciding on land use and building types. It also provides the legal framework for public engagement on plan preparations and planning applications.

According to the institute’s research, from about 1,400 cases submitted to the board for approval during 2013 to 2015, about one third were approved in a year on average, while more than half needed up to six months or longer to review.

In 2015 alone, about half of the 470 submissions were postponed, with some applicants having to resubmit their applications four times due to various queries by the board.

The slow reviewing and approval process has become a bottleneck for the supply of suitable residential sites for building more homes, the institute says in the report.

“The current planning application system plays an important role in land development. According to the Town Planning Ordinance, the [board] is supposed to process applications within two or three months of submission. But in recent years, typical planning applications could hardly be approved within this time frame,” says Thomas Ho, the institute’s president.

The research, led by Lau Chun-kong, former president and now chairman of the institute’s land policy panel, found that the most common reason for deferment was due to extra time required for applicants to review and make clarifications on comments or questions raised by the government.

Other reasons included stringent requirements imposed by the Planning Department, as the board secretariat demands proper formatting and correct spellings – a process that can take up to one month or more to rectify.

Also, more details are required from applicants in the private sector as opposed to government departments, the research shows.

[The board] is supposed to process applications within two or three months of submission. But ... typical planning applications could hardly be approved within this time frame
Thomas Ho, president, HKIS

In addition, it takes much longer to exchange correspondence in order to reach consensus on technical issues. And finally, problems associated with the industrial and residential interface are harder to handle, the institute’s research concludes.

“Sites zoned as comprehensive development areas [CDA] are usually much bigger in size. Proper [and] timely implementation could expedite [the] property development pipeline, including housing,” Lau says. “According to our analysis, compared to general land use, CDA faces more difficulties when developing, [because of] fragmented ownership [and] complex land uses. The planning application of CDA takes more time, and in some cases, implementation is not in sight even after 20 years.” For some time, analysts and property experts have called for streamlining the board’s approval process.

Some analysts such as Denis Ma, JLL’s head of research, have said that the government should plan well in advance and streamline the distribution of land supply so as to develop areas that have been sparsely developed.

To make the application and approval process more streamlined and less time-consuming, the institute has six recommendations for the board on general application arrangements and CDA development.

On general applications, the institute suggests that a clear set of guidelines be issued to help an applicant understand what should be included in the application form.

Unless otherwise required by the Town Planning Ordinance, the board secretariat should acknowledge receipt of an application and return a date-stamped copy to the applicant. The board should also arrange a meeting to review an application within three months, the research suggests.

The institute further suggests that a pre-lodgement meeting be organised so that the applicant can meet and speak to the official in charge face-to-face, instead of exchanging documents back and forth.

Also, relevant provisions should be included to state clearly a deadline for departmental comments. After the deadline, and following a similar provision in the Buildings Ordinance, the relevant technical issue should be deemed to have been accepted by government. In order for assessment standards to be consistent and coherent, a broad-brush assessment on technical issues should be accepted following the initial application vetting, no matter if the application is made by a private or a public organisation.

On CDA development, the institute suggests that a large-size CDA be subdivided into smaller pieces, or be considered for rezoning for more uses. It also suggests joining forces with the Urban Renewal Authority in the implementation process; and more infrastructural support from the government, including the provision of facilities such as drainage, sewerage system, roads, among others.

Additional reporting by Mukul Munish