Opposition to creating a ‘metropolis’ in Hong Kong’s Lantau must be heard
Tom Yam says public opinion on the contentious HK$400 billion Lantau new town plan must be separately analysed and publicised, and not lumped with general 2030 Plus concepts, as Hong Kong’s taxpayers deserve more transparency
The Hong Kong government has been putting on performances called “public consultations” for years. These costly road shows are increasingly seen by the people as pro forma exercises, as many believe neither the methodology nor the results makes any difference to government decision-making.
Hong Kong people, whose taxes pay for public consultations, deserve more transparency, especially where projects will incur major capital investment.
The choreography of consultations generally works like this: public support for long-term, benign concepts is publicised, while opposition to near-term, specific and controversial projects is downplayed or ignored. Public support for the former is then extended to cover the latter. Yet, it is these specific projects that have huge long-term implications. For example, in the 2011 consultation on strategic land supply, the government claimed “broad support for the six-pronged approach for enhancing land supply”, omitting the fact of broad opposition to the approach of land reclamation as one of the six prongs.
After last year’s public consultation on the future of Lantau, the government claimed general support for its development plan, ignoring the fact that more respondents opposed specifically the construction of the East Lantau Metropolis than supported it.
On a proposal to conduct a study to explore developing the East Lantau Metropolis and use artificial island(s) to develop a new central business district, 51.2 per cent disagreed, while 31.6 per cent agreed. The majority wanted more information. The report on the consultation acknowledged that the East Lantau Metropolis was one of three subjects on which the public was most concerned. Yet, the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint does not reflect this public concern at all, presenting the decision to build the East Lantau Metropolis as a fait accompli.
The government has commissioned the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Centre to analyse the feedback from its most recent consultation, on its “2030 Plus” development plan. This is costing HK$1.04 million. Yet the government did not use statistically valid sampling methodology to reveal the opinion of a representative sample of citizens during the consultation. So it is crucial that the feedback data is interpreted with care, and a distinction made between general concepts and specific projects.
During the six-month public consultation on the 2030 Plus plan, the government received public feedback during 250 meetings. There were three public hearings with big audiences; eight topical discussion sessions; 140 briefings and guided tours in exhibition halls; a public hearing by the Legislative Council’s development panel; presentations to the 18 district councils, and discussions with over 160 non-governmental organisations, think tanks, concern groups, business and professional entities, and so on. More than 4,000 government-issued survey forms were submitted online and in paper format. Also, thousands of individuals and organisations submitted petitions on various aspects of the 2030 Plus plan.
In sum, the government has collected a huge volume of quantitative and qualitative data. The quantifiable data must be analysed and the findings clearly explained. Among the questions asked in the survey was one addressing a specific, and contentious, issue – the construction of two new towns, the East Lantau Metropolis and New Territories North.
Whether these new towns are needed is under intense public debate. In particular, the East Lantau Metropolis will be the biggest infrastructure project in Hong Kong’s history, involving reclamation of 1,000 hectares and estimated to cost over HK$400 billion. This exceeds the combined cost of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the high-speed rail link and the third runway. The government is seeking HK$248 million just to conduct a feasibility study.
Given its scale and impact, public feedback on the East Lantau Metropolis should not be swept under the general concepts in the 2030 Plus plan, but analysed as a separate category, and the findings presented in detail to the public.
Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania