The government may be in a frantic search for new land to boost housing supply, but it undermines its own credibility by the cavalier way in which it has long tolerated the illegal occupation of public land in the New Territories. Worse, a new study by the Liber Research Community using Google satellite photos has found extensive public sites being leased to some of the city’s richest families to build their own private swimming pools and tennis courts near their luxury estates. Government did nothing about illegal private garden for 20 years At a time when thousands of families on low incomes are living in the hellish conditions of subdivided flats and other unsafe and substandard facilities, this is truly obscene. The Lands Department operates an opaque system that leases land without public tender or even publication of rental charges. The research group has unearthed three hectares of government land that have been leased in 31 short-term rental contracts, and are home to 23 private swimming pools and eight tennis courts. But this may be the tip of the iceberg. Most of those sites are in exclusive neighbourhoods in Mid-Levels, Kowloon Tong and Sai Kung. The department does not disclose how much rent those places collect, but it is believed they are charged below market rates. This system is effectively subsidising the lifestyles of the rich, who are able to build private amenities on public land instead of on their own estates. Government may open up opaque Hong Kong land deals which ‘favour the rich’ Meanwhile, the ombudsman has found cases in which the same department has been extremely slow in taking back government land illegally occupied by landlords in the New Territories. One case was not resolved for two decades, and the original owner who started all the illegal alterations and occupation got away scot-free. The hapless last buyer ended up having to pay all the penalties. The department that dealt with such matters said it had a backlog of 7,746 cases in the past 10 years, and had completed 5,531. But the reason there is such a backlog is because the government has been guilty of lax enforcement and supervision. It is clear the department is doing a woefully inadequate job, and an independent authority needs to monitor its work. This means overhauling the land lease system and stepping up enforcement against illegal occupation. There needs to be a public tally of all such sites across the city and a determination of how many of them may be taken back and developed to boost land supply.