Hong Kong’s land realities call for a radical approach, but is anyone willing to take on the vested interests?

Mike Rowse says baffling development decisions, even as vast tracts of the New Territories remain untouched, indicate the scale of the problem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 1:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 1:57am

The realities of Hong Kong’s land and housing supply require the government to take a radically different approach to land administration in the New Territories. Yet, our constitutional and political situations require that no such approach can be implemented before March at the earliest. Sadly, it may not be practicable even then.

A number of recent development decisions make no sense in the context of a pressing need for land to build public housing. The case of Wang Chau in Yuen Long has been well publicised: a large area of flat, serviced “brownfield” land, controlled by powerful local interests, is to be left alone while a smaller nearby site zoned for green belt is to be cleared and developed.

The obvious thing to do is develop the larger brownfield site first and clear the non-indigenous villagers residing in the adjacent site into the public housing, leaving until later a decision on whether to also develop the smaller site or leave it as restored green belt.

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In Tuen Mun, development of a site at Sun Hing Road, which could have provided 8,000 public rental housing units, has been drastically scaled back and will now provide only 1,500, while a private developer has got approval to build luxury houses on part of the site.

And now, it has been revealed that a Sha Tin site occupied by a football facility – recently completed at a cost of HK$84 million – is to be converted to public housing when the lease expires next year. With the paint on Kitchee’s new clubhouse barely dry, it is to be demolished. The assurance that a replacement site will be found is welcome but the saga reeks of confusion.

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Meanwhile, vast areas of land in the New Territories perfectly capable of early development remain untouched. Much of this is agricultural land in the hands of the major property developers. The top four companies alone are hoarding over 100 million square feet which they will bring forward for development at a time which maximises their profits, not public good. Much of the rest is controlled by rural strongmen. The plain truth is that land management in the New Territories has been lackadaisical for decades. Traditional villages occupied by farmers have been expanded by way of “village extension areas” – where new homes are built and let out to tenants not connected with agriculture. The practice with both private and government land has been to put it to use first, then regularise (if necessary) later. If the District Lands Office squawks, the new use is covered by a short-term waiver.

Government land not immediately required for development is supposed to be offered on short-term tenancy by public tender, but sometimes it is just appropriated. Fencing off a small garden next to a house may not raise major policy or enforcement issues, but what about when a larger area near a village is converted into a car park for residents, with the fees collected going into private pockets? Or when a fence around a private lot is stretched to “accidentally” embrace some government land?

One of the striking features of the Wang Chau case was the apparent need to consult and seek a consensus. A consensus is desirable, but where land is required for a public purpose, it is not necessary to wait for all concerned to agree. The Executive Council can simply order resumption with appropriate compensation. What is so puzzling is the reluctance to exercise these powers even where the justification is overwhelming.

The composition of the Election Committee ... is heavily skewed in favour of property developers and rural interests

The answer lies in the politics of land. The composition of the Election Committee, which will in March choose the next chief executive, is heavily skewed in favour of property developers and rural interests. Of its 1,200 members, the Heung Yee Kuk nominates 28 and the agriculture and fisheries sector a further 60. While the real estate and construction sector in theory has only 18 representatives, it is well known that the conglomerates based on major developers control hundreds of the companies that vote in other sectors. The situation in the Legislative Council’s functional constituencies is similarly distorted.

All potential chief executive candidates are well aware of where the balance of power lies.

The only question that remains is whether any candidate, once elected, would be prepared to take on these vested interests.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. [email protected]