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The Tiu Shau Ngam mountain ridge, with the Ma On Shan residential area in the background. A recent suggestion for alleviating Hong Kong’s shortage of land for housing involves freeing up space at a sewage treatment plant by diverting it into newly created caverns in a Ma On Shan mountain. Photo: Stanley Shin

Hong Kong’s housing shortage suffers from a lack of low-hanging fruit

Paul Stapleton says the government has arrived at its latest plan – involving blasting out the inside of a mountain – to make space for housing due to a lack of convenient options

“Low-hanging fruit” is an expression often used to describe a task or goal that is most easily achieved among a whole set of challenges. In Hong Kong, the government regularly confronts challenges where sets of obvious solutions exist, but each arrives with difficulties. If there are too many cars on the road, for example, then the lowest-hanging fruit is probably to raise taxes on automobiles. High-hanging fruit, in this case, would be to build more roads because there is so little space in Hong Kong. New roads would have to come in the form of tunnels or newly created bypasses, both of which are hugely expensive and involve a lengthy process. Thus, it is often the low-hanging fruit that is taken.
Let us then consider Hong Kong’s most intractable, long-standing problem: finding land to provide adequate housing for the entire population. Recently, a variety of solutions have been considered, with none really in the low-hanging-fruit category.

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Chipping away at the corners of our country parks is frequently proposed, but the mere mention of this brings out green groups who rightly condemn sacrificing even a small slice of our nature when we live in such dense urban conditions.
Brownfield sites, or damaged agricultural lands, seem like a no-brainer for property development, but as soon as a site is identified, the vested interests argue that the piece of land houses businesses that bring significant economic contributions, such as containers, warehouses and storage facilities.

Reclaiming land from the sea – despite the expense – is another solution sometimes mentioned, but because our harbour has already been narrowed to river-like proportions, the only other locations are far from the city and therefore not a realistic solution.

Probably one of the highest pieces of fruit is using the land at the Hong Kong Golf Club, a chunk of flat property the size of several Victoria Parks, right next to Fanling Station. Readers can just imagine why this is untouchable.

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Which leaves us with what looks to be our government’s conception of low-hanging fruit, announced just this week: blasting out the insides of a mountain in Ma On Shan to create caverns the size of a small stadium, to where they will divert sewage from much of the New Territories. The purpose is to free up land where our present sewage treatment plant sits, which is about 28 hectares, or about one-and-a-half Victoria Parks. The estimated cost is HK$30 billion, and the massive project is expected to take up to 11 years to complete, with immense disruption to the surrounding neighbourhoods. Surely fruit that comes at such a cost is not low-hanging.

Paul Stapleton comments on local social, environmental and educational issues

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: No easy choices on housing