Hong Kong elite must pay price to play on public land

If everyone is being asked to compromise when it comes to sites for housing, private clubs should face bigger bills or open up their facilities to outsiders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 1:31am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 1:31am

One side denounces the politics of envy. The other side demands social justice. And so it goes back and forth between those who think the government should take back land leased cheaply to private clubs for fat cats; and those who think social justice warriors are encouraging envy and hatred of the well-off.

There ought to be a middle ground. In its drive to find new land to boost housing supply, the government has been advocating land reclamation and development on the fringes of country parks, evicting residents such as those in Yuen Long’s Wang Chau; rezoning public recreational facilities to build homes.

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If everyone is being asked by officials to compromise, it’s hard to see how elite clubs, which take up most of the preferentially leased land, could exempt themselves. Private clubs take up 66 of such sites which total about 400 hectares. Of these, 27 exclusive private sports clubs hold about 300 hectares. Advocacy group Green Sense claims the preferential land leases cost the government almost HK$400 million a year. The Hong Kong Golf Club’s Fanling course alone takes up 170 hectares. No wonder to the chagrin of its bosses, the club is being picked on by the government’s Task Force on Land Supply and other housing advocates.

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On the other hand, it has been pointed out that those clubs provide excellent facilities and amenities, and vital greeneries in a city so lacking in their provision. It would be self-destructive to bulldoze such valuable environmental resources in our single-minded drive for more housing.

There are, indeed, compromises. The government and those private clubs can’t expect business as usual and not provoke charges of unfairness. But it would be equally unjust to put those clubs out of business.

They should be given a choice. If they wish to remain exclusive, they should pay rent more commensurate with market rates. The rent and levies thus raised should then be recycled to fund social welfare groups and their services. This is nothing new. We have been doing this with gambling takes through the Jockey Club since the 1970s.

Alternatively, if they don’t want or can’t afford to pay near market rent, they should open some or more of their facilities to the public with proper independent monitoring so there would be no cheating or discrimination against non-members.

Meanwhile, some sites clearly have housing development potential. They shouldn’t be let off the hook.