My Take

The land is there for housing, if officials remove their blinkers

Large developers are holding on to idle land, yet the government only seems to target the small fry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 10:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 10:46pm

Here’s a question for undergraduate students in public administration: if officials can evict hundreds of residents and villagers to make way for a public housing development, why can’t they force developers to cough up idle land reserves?

Actually, we all know why. But in this day and age, you would think it’s about time to apply equal justice when it comes to recovering land in the public interest.

The controversial development plan in Wang Chau is a case in point. It has become a complete mess, both for the government and a major private developer.

Wang Chau villagers furious as they wake up to find notice of government construction work

Even though the public housing plan has been scaled back amid much criticism – from 17,000 units to just 4,000 – the government development on a green-belt site is still expected to have to evict about 180 families from three villages. Chef Executive Leung Chun-ying has claimed the full 17,000 target is still on the cards, but has never provided a timeline about when that would be met.

Meanwhile, an application by New World Development to rezone another nearby green-belt site to build 1,100 luxury apartments was rejected last week by the Town Planning Board. The reason given by the board was fear about adverse traffic conditions. But it’s hard not to think the intense public scrutiny had made it politically impossible to give New World the green light.

Private Wang Chau development rejected on traffic concerns

Now New World is in a pretty pickle. It owns the land but can’t do anything about it. Here’s an idea: why not sell it back to the government at current market price? Or, the government can force it to sell it back as part of the Wang Chau development.

If the doctrine of eminent domain allows officials to evict poor residents and villagers from their homes, surely it may be applied with equal justice to big developers and their idle land banks.

The scaling back of the public housing development in Wang Chau is widely seen as the government having caved in to the demands of rural kingpins. Transport and housing chief Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung has claimed such informal “consultations” are normal. But he has also complained this month that his bureau won’t be able to meet its public housing target in 10 years without the cooperation of the public.

Well, for once, how about asking a big developer “to cooperate” in the public interest?