A far-sighted decision taken by Hong Kong in 1976 was to designate large swathes of its territory as country parks. This prevented the urban sprawl from ruining the habitats of a wide range of flora and fauna, and provided our growing population with much needed greenery for respite and recreation. But that decision failed to stop 30 per cent of our land area that is also rural from the onslaught of development. Today, anyone taking a tour of the New Territories cannot but be saddened by unseemly eyesores. Once fertile farmlands and fish ponds have been filled and converted into container storage areas or scrap yards. Around these haphazard developments are clusters of poorly designed small houses that have been built with apparently no planning. There are still patches of unspoiled rural land. Their natural conditions have been preserved either because of their remoteness or ecological significance. In particular, development has been barred at 12 sites in private ownership due to their richness in biodiversity. But as we report today on A18, rural land outside protected zones is coming under the threat of development too, due to a lack of an overarching policy to protect it. Green groups have expressed concerns over plans to develop South Lantau and the frontier closed area and to build a terminal for liquefied petroleum gas on the Soko Islands. The merits of their case for halting these plans are debatable. But they do have a point in pressing the government to formulate a policy to address conservation issues in rural areas. To its credit, the government took a significant step in 2004 to better preserve ecologically sensitive areas that are in private ownership. Under the policy, non-governmental organisations may apply for funding from the government to enter into management agreements with the landowners to enhance conservation of those sites. The policy has failed to satisfy owners' demands to be compensated for being barred from putting their sites to more profitable uses. The $5 million funding for the pilot conservation scheme has also been criticised as paltry. The policy needs to be improved, but is an effort to provide some incentives for owners to preserve the ecological features of their properties. Rural land with no apparent ecological value remains unprotected, however. While it would be wrong to regard all encroachment on the countryside as necessarily bad, it would be a shame to see more of it being gobbled up by concrete. Perhaps the most powerful argument against further encroachment of rural land is that we are not fully using areas that have already been developed. Although our population is ageing and our fertility rate has dropped, it is still growing at a modest pace. But the need for more and bigger housing can be met by using industrial properties, many of which have become vacant, for residential purposes. The policy of allowing every indigenous male descendant of indigenous villagers to build so-called small houses that are no more than three storeys high is very inefficient and wasteful in terms of land use. A review of planning rules could conceivably allow for higher-density developments on land already occupied by these houses, so long as this formed part of an overall strategy that preserved the natural beauty of rural areas. Supporters of the small-house policy claim it is protected by the Basic Law. Subject to that dubious argument being confirmed in court, the government should be moving to scrap this outdated scheme. There is a need to build a better environment in the New Territories. Thanks to the visionary move to create country parks 40 years ago, Hong Kong remains largely a patch of green in an urbanising Pearl River Delta. As valuable farmland continues to be paved over by concrete across the border, our greenbelts have become a source of our competitiveness as an attractive city in which to live. Our quality of life would be enhanced by further measures to preserve rural areas outside existing protected zones.