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Hong Kong housing

It’s time to end those privileges enjoyed by elite Hong Kong sports clubs

As the search for housing land goes on, such facilities would be better utilised for public use by making membership more affordable in a city short on recreation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 12:50am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 12:50am

Hong Kong’s shortage of land for housing is largely behind a government review of private sports clubs. But our city is also desperately in need of facilities for sports and recreation, and the 27 sites held by the organisations for nominal rent are a valuable asset. Linking the two, as a public consultation paper does, is therefore misplaced; we need both, not one or the other. The focus of the process should be on the subsidies they receive and making their resources more widely available for community use.

Authorities have been sitting on the issue of club leases for years; it has been raised from time to time by the Audit Commission as needing review. Only now, six years after the government made the search for housing land a priority, are private sports clubs and the 300 or so hectares they control being scrutinised. But the issue of housing requires an overall strategy, not one that picks on pockets of land here and there. Creating land through reclamation and turning to brownfield sites in the New Territories makes greater sense.

Why Hong Kong’s wealthy private clubs will have to pay a lot more for land leases

Still, there is every reason to shake up a system that is outdated and often elitist. It dates from colonial times, when there was an acute shortage of public sports and recreation facilities. Non-profit private clubs that formed to fill the gap were granted land by the government for long leases for free or at token amounts with restricted public access. Many evolved into havens for the wealthy and well-connected, providing exclusivity through hefty joining and membership fees and luxury amenities.

Only in 2011 were adjustments made, but they are still too restrictive and some clubs have built facilities that have nothing to do with sport. One government proposal is that clubs pay a third of the market rate as rent; some consider this is still too generous and there is a downside in that it may lead to greater exclusivity through the charging of even higher fees. The current requirement that facilities be made available for public use for 50 hours a month would similarly seem not enough and there are numerous instances of the rules being underpublicised or not observed.

Closing private clubs could kill Hong Kong sports and is not the answer to the housing crisis

After the six-month consultation, authorities may consider that some club facilities should be handed back as land for housing; the old course at the Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling has been pointed to in this regard, even though it enhances our city’s standing through hosting an annual tournament that is part of the Asian and European tours.

But with strains on public sporting and recreation facilities so severe, sight must not be lost of how private clubs can be better utilised for community use. Access should be further enhanced through measures such as making membership more affordable. The days of privilege at public expense have long passed.