Why East Lantau Metropolis is yet another conjuring trick by the Hong Kong government
Tom Yam says the sustained failure to justify reclamation plans for the HK$400 billion East Lantau Metropolis, despite significant public opposition and few long-term housing benefits, shows up the government’s threadbare logic
How does a government with no popular mandate create the appearance of popular support for controversial proposals?
First, set up a committee/task force/panel and appoint as most of its members qualified people from “different sectors” who can be trusted to follow the script. Call this group “representative” and give it terms of reference and other trappings of credibility. Then, present the controversial proposal to the committee to “study” and give its “recommendation”.
Shortly thereafter, the committee recommends that the proposal should proceed. The government accepts the recommendation, declaring the proposal endorsed by a group from “a cross-section of society”, and indignantly denies any suggestion that the committee has merely rubber-stamped the proposal.
This is essentially the Hong Kong government’s strategy for conjuring up an illusion of public approval for projects that have, in reality, generated significant public controversy. It’s the game plan being deployed for the East Lantau Metropolis.
This vast new town is to be created by reclaiming land around two islets east of Lantau and connecting them to Mui Wo in south Lantau. On these 1,000 hectares will rise housing and infrastructure for up to 700,000 people, plus a business district, linked with the rest of Hong Kong by bridges or tunnels and railways totalling 29km. It will cost about HK$400 billion, exceeding the combined cost of the third runway, high-speed rail link to Guangzhou and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. It will be the most expensive, complex and risky project in our history.
Hong Kong town planners map out future for Lantau
Shortly after then chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced the plan in his January 2014 policy address, the government appointed the Lantau Development Advisory Committee – stacked with pro-establishment figures; a token environmentalist was included. The government presented the East Lantau Metropolis to the committee at its first meeting in March 2014. Within months, the government was requesting HK$227 million from the Legislative Council for a feasibility study, and commissioned a HK$9.2 million consultancy study of a transport network for the town.
Then, in August this year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s government set up the Task Force on Land Supply. On November 2, it presented to the task force six sites targeted for reclamation, including the East Lantau Metropolis. By November 7, just five days later, the task force had announced its approval. Next, expect the government to trumpet the task force’s seal of approval.
Neither the committee nor the task force seems to be bothered by leaps of logic in the official rationale for reclamation. The government disingenuously links expanding land supply to the shortage of affordable housing. But it will take at least 30 years for the East Lantau Metropolis to be ready. So it will not ease the current long wait for public housing or poor condition of subdivided flats. Moreover, if the new town is built along with other planned residential projects, we will have housing capacity for over 9 million people. But the population is forecast to peak at 8.22 million in 2043, falling to 7.8 million in 2064. So the plan will cause housing overcapacity in the long term, will be useless in the near term, and will take away HK$400 billion from public health care and other real needs.
What’s more, most Hong Kong people don’t want more reclamation or a metropolis in the sea. Two previous public consultations showed markedly more opposition than support. In a 2011-2013 opinion poll on strategic land supply, 46.4 per cent opposed reclamation, while 33.6 per cent supported it. In a 2016 public opinion poll on Lantau’s development, 51.2 per cent opposed the East Lantau Metropolis, and 31.6 per cent supported it. Yet the metropolis is embedded in the Lantau development blueprint published this year.
In the three years since the plan was announced, the government has refused to provide any detailed justification for spending billions to build a new town vulnerable to rising sea levels. It can’t justify such a project. Which is why it manufactures support, by creating compliant committees.
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