My Take

Will Carrie Lam have the guts to take back our public land?

It’s time to end the illegal use of New Territories land and face down powerful vested interests

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 2:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 2:08am

The government will finally crack down on the illegal occupation of public land across the New Territories, or so officials have claimed. After so many years of turning a blind eye that bordered on criminal neglect, I will believe it when I see it.

But if they mean what they say, they shouldn’t just stop at mere enforcement. To demonstrate good faith and sound public policy, they should revive the original target of 17,000 public housing units under the Wang Chau development project in Yuen Long.

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The sunset government of Leung Chun-ying has been accused of colluding with, or at least caving in to, rural strongmen who have illegally occupied public brownfield sites. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, the authorities scaled down the project to just 4,000 flats on a nearby green-belt site. Well, let’s see if the next government of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has the guts to take on the vested interests and finish the job.

But as a first step, the new policy change means refusing to accept indefinitely extendable short-term leases for rural operators of car parks, scrapyards and container storage sites who have illegally taken over government land, most of which is brownfield.

There are about 1,200 hectares of brownfield land across Hong Kong. Not all of it can be turned into residential areas because of poor road access and general lack of infrastructure support. However, large swathes of it do have development potential. If we are so desperate for land that Leung says we need to reclaim waters and build in country parks, let’s take back our public land for a start.

There will be fierce resistance from rural committees under the Heung Yee Kuk, which has been having its way with the government for far too long.

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Given the fact that the kuk had just given all its votes on the Election Committee to Lam to help her win the chief executive race, its leaders and cronies may think she will be beholden to them.

Illegal land occupation is a secondary issue for them. The real fight will be over villagers’ right to build and own so-called small houses, a policy that takes up large swathes of New Territories land.

If Lam wants to demonstrate credibility and gain public trust, she must prove she is no puppet of New Territories strongmen and urban developers.