There’s no shortage of land for housing in Hong Kong, only a lack of will to act for the people

Peter Kammerer slams government plans to build subsidised housing on a small plot used for sports, instead of facing up to interest groups and taking hard decisions on rezoning and existing flats

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 7:07pm

If you want to destroy a community and its spirit, take away its meeting and recreation places. That’s what the Hong Kong government appears to be doing in North Point on the pretext of providing housing. A basketball court and soccer pitch on a postage-stamp-sized piece of land is up for rezoning so that a 34-storey block of subsidised-sale flats can be built. A new playground has been promised, but no site has yet been mentioned and, given the limited options, it’s likely existing places for children and the elderly will be grabbed and redeveloped.

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The 0.12 hectare site bounded by Java and Marble roads and Tin Chiu Street is presently zoned for government, institution or community use. Plots in that category, along with recreation and green-belt land across the city, are being earmarked by authorities striving to meet a target of building 280,000 public-sector flats by 2025-26 to alleviate what is claimed to be a severe housing shortage. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has staked his reputation and that of his administration on being able to deliver. But the debacle over the Wang Chau brownfield site in Yuen Long – which involves letting a car park and other businesses operating on government land, some illegally, get in the way of a 12,700-flat development – says the resolve isn’t as strong as it is made out to be.

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In fact, it’s government mismanagement that has led to this problem in the first place. Hong Kong may be just 1,100 sq km in area, but there’s no shortage of land: the 7.2 million of us are squeezed into an urban zone that accounts for just 20 per cent. The rest is country park and rural spaces that are not untouchable, no matter what green addicts and indigenous New Territories villagers with questionable land rights may contend. All that is needed to find land to expand our city is, as the children at the playground in North Point may well soon find out, rezoning – although I’ll admit there will be some tough bargaining on matters like compensation and what should and should not be protected.

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In the case of the playground, it’s problematic as the district is already heavily built-up. Open spaces and recreation areas have been rapidly disappearing or shrinking. In their wake have arisen the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Customs and Excise headquarters and in front of the ferry pier, an under-construction mall and luxury housing development. Kids who want to kick or throw a ball about have that tiny court and pitch, and soon even that will disappear.

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Laws were made to be changed and adapted as times and thinking shift. Tiny interest groups like rural villagers and bird watchers can’t be allowed to get in the way of development. We need to be striking balances and that obviously involves encroaching on land that authorities have for too long considered off-limits due to an inability to want to make hard decisions. But that’s not the only area where there’s been ineptitude.

No matter what the Leung administration says, there are no land or housing shortages

What place in the world allows developers to sit indefinitely on huge amounts of land waiting for demand to rise so that profits can be maximised? Most governments impose taxes and penalties to make sure housing is built. The same goes for the flats allowed to remain unoccupied; elsewhere, there are taxes. Tell me which city that provides places to live for the needy at heavily subsidised rates would allow single people aged only 18 to make an application? Why, if there is such a shortage of public flats, do we allow people to continue to live in them when they earn above the threshold and even when they agree to pay more, only double? These matters don’t even account for all that land being illegally occupied in the New Territories.

Really, no matter what the Leung administration says, there are no land or housing shortages. And the kids of North Point are among those who suffer.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post