Land shortage in Hong Kong is a problem of our own making

Bernard Chan points out the attitudinal barriers to full use of our supply

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 11:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Barton Lui Pan-to made a bit of history recently: he became the first male athlete to represent Hong Kong at a Winter Olympics.

In one interview, he talked about how proud he was, and of the sacrifices he and his family had made. Although the Hong Kong Skating Union helped fund him at major tournaments, he had to pay his own travel costs to go to many competitions. His skates had to be tailor-made in South Korea and cost HK$20,000.

Then there is the cost in terms of time. Speed skating requires intensive training, and Barton had to travel to Dongguan every day when he was in Hong Kong; he also trained in Seoul.

After he was eliminated in the heats at Sochi, he was open about his limitations in the face of very fierce competition.

He might have done better - and more Hong Kong athletes might have gone to Sochi - if we had better facilities for ice sports. Although Hong Kong has several ice rinks, most are not suitable for Olympic-class events, and none have proper seating for spectators. Their capacity does not even meet demand from people who skate as a pastime.

Things could be different. A couple of years ago, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce proposed an "Ice Centre" to match the facilities found in Taipei, Shanghai and elsewhere in the region. It was a visionary idea. The multi-storey complex would include extensive rink space for leisure, an Olympic-class practice rink, and a multipurpose arena also suitable for things like indoor soccer.

It would accommodate ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating and even curling both for leisure and at the level of international events. So the facility would be a major community hub as well as a centre for competitive sport. It would encourage more people to take part in ice sports. And it would give Hong Kong athletes proper training facilities.

The Canadian chamber's proposal suggested a private-public partnership to fund, build and manage the complex.

For proposals of this sort, it almost goes without saying that land is a major challenge. Officials are very sensitive about granting land at below-market prices to projects with private-sector involvement. In this case, the land would need to be in a location with good transport links, which would make land costs even more of an issue.

It looks like a facility like the Ice Centre will not happen any time soon. That's a pity. As we have seen with cycling, which now has a dedicated velodrome in Tseung Kwan O, Hong Kong athletes' success in competition encourages sport in the community.

Most of us accept that Hong Kong, like any city, cannot have everything. After all, we will be getting a 50,000-seat multipurpose stadium at Kai Tak, and West Kowloon will have some of the best museum and performance space in Asia. We can obviously get by without a world-class ice sports venue.

But it is getting to the stage where proposals for even essential structures become apparently impossible because of a lack of physical space. Homes for the aged, student dormitories, columbariums and artists' studios are just a few examples of facilities we need - not to mention affordable homes and commercial space.

As many people point out, Hong Kong does not have a shortage of land. But we do have a serious shortage of space that is usable in the short to medium term - land that is accessible to transport and utilities, is not subject to ownership or zoning problems, and where neighbours or other groups will not oppose changes of land use or specific new projects. Even redevelopment of ageing urban areas seems to create problems.

Ultimately, we face a choice. Unless we rethink red tape, a not-in-my-backyard mentality and other barriers to land use, we will have to go without a lot more than ice sports facilities.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council