Despite row over rural land, the provision of affordable housing must remain the priority
The controversy over the housing project in Yuen Long could have been averted had there been proper and wide consultation to allay public doubts
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has staked his reputation on the provision of land for affordable housing. It is a pressing issue in Hong Kong, amid concerns about high property prices and a growing wealth gap. Questions are, therefore, bound to be asked when a sizeable public housing project appears to have suddenly been scaled back. If this happens, there is a need for the decision-making process to be fair and transparent and for consultation to be wide. Sadly, that has not happened in the case of Wang Chau in the New Territories.
Leung belatedly held a press conference on Wednesday in a bid to ease concerns. It is good that he and other officials faced the media. The chief executive took ultimate responsibility for a decision to prioritise development of 5.6 hectares of land on a residential green-belt site. He made it clear the original plan to clear a further 33 hectares of ruined agricultural land nearby – to provide 17,000 flats – had not been scrapped. The development will take place in phases.
The press conference, however, leaves questions unanswered. Officials were at pains to stress they had not caved in to pressure from rural leaders, some of whom have business interests on the larger area of land and therefore a vested interest. But that is precisely what appears to have happened.
Rural leaders expressed strong concerns about the project during private meetings with officials. Their opposition was clearly a factor in the decision to defer the development of the larger area and, instead, start with the green-belt site on which three villages stand.
The government must now disclose full details of the project. Decisions on the use of land are sensitive and often the root of social problems. Everyone should be able to understand how and why these decisions are made.
Development plans necessarily involve many stakeholders and competing interests. The government must ensure all parties are fully informed and their views given fair consideration. In the case of Wang Chau, the rural leaders were consulted, but not the villagers who now face removal from their homes. There should have been a public consultation.
The government must keep its promise to develop the ruined agricultural land at a later stage. This has become a highly charged political issue, but the priority remains the provision of affordable housing in Hong Kong. To achieve this, officials will need political will and support from different interests – including rural leaders.