Carrie Lam’s search for housing land begins with faith in her own task force. And it doesn’t end in reclamation

David Dodwell says among the 18 options proposed are several that can yield enough land to meet demand in the long term. In the short term, the priority should be to use brownfield sites and private agricultural land, and think outside the box for two more possibilities – redevelop Disney, and ask the PLA for underused military sites

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 10:33pm

Ask any moderately sceptical Hong Kong person what the result should be of the government’s consultation on future land supply and you are likely to get a wry smile: “The government already has its preferred answer – land reclamation. The consultation is just looking for the questions.”

Even Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, the thoughtful and technocratic head of the Task Force on Land Supply, is hard-pressed to explain why Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is promising answers in her policy address in mid-October, when even the first draft of the task force’s report is not due until the end of the year.

Why has the task force been tasked to evaluate a marvellously comprehensive 18-option outline of Hong Kong’s land supply challenges when the government appears already to have reached its own conclusions? Especially when even the most basic examination of its options suggests that, in the long term, future land supply needs can be met quite comfortably without resorting to expensive and environmentally harmful reclamation projects.

Land reclamation: ‘theft from the sea’ or a Hong Kong necessity?

If we have a genuine challenge, it is over short-term supply, and the price we are paying for 15 years of neglect.

Let’s start with the basic number. The government and task force say we have a land supply shortfall of around 1,200 hectares if we are to cater for an estimated population of 9 million. This number is based on census projections that Hong Kong’s population would peak at 8.22 million in 2043, plus a 10 per cent buffer. Many disagree with the need for this buffer, and say it unnecessarily inflates the land supply shortfall.

But let’s not quibble, and stay with the task force’s 1,200 hectares. Better to have some land to spare, rather than too little. And it is important to remember that while the main challenge is to find enough space to house our population, there are other objectives here too – like cleaning up the blighted areas of Hong Kong and making our urban areas more liveable.

If our target is to find 1,200 hectares, then the first insight from the list of 18 options is that we can put aside most of them as unnecessary. Expeditious development of the six areas in the New Territories that make up the “New Development Areas” on their own provide 2,500 hectares. Add together the three developments (which include some reclamation) along the north of Lantau, Tsing Yi southwest, Ma Liu Shui in Sha Tin, and Lung Kwu Tan in Tuen Mun, and you have a further 450 hectares.

To solve Hong Kong’s housing crisis, there are only two viable options

Already, that provides almost 3,000 hectares. There are costs and tedious planning obstacles to overcome, but most of these developments sit clearly within the existing powers of the government. The message to Lam must surely be: “Just get on with it – as speedily as possible.” And here’s the problem: all of these will take time, while at least 800 of the 1,200 hectares is needed fast.

So why are we frivolously diverting everyone’s attention with exotic ideas of cementing over Plover Cove, developing parts of our country parks, using caverns, grabbing golf courses, or building new and extravagantly expensive artificial islands off east Lantau? Put politely, the case looks weak.

So, too, with the idea that we could redevelop, and build over the Kwai Tsing container terminals. It may be that, on a 30-year view, our container port will gradually decline to a point where redevelopment makes sense. But today it remains one of the world’s busiest ports and drives hundreds of thousands of jobs. Euthanasia seems premature here. (The 65-hectare River Trade Terminal might be another matter, however. It has passed its sell-by date, and could be conveniently repurposed for future housing.)

Watch: Should the Fanling golf course be used for housing?

Given the urgent short-term supply challenge, there are other task force options that would make sense. Among these, the most glaring is to clean up and develop the brownfield sites that blight large parts of the northwest New Territories. We have approximately 1,300 hectares of brownfield land, some of it muddled up with a further 1,000 hectares of neglected private agricultural land. Our government should take this blight in hand, not simply to provide fast access to land for housing, but to clean up sores that are an embarrassment to the city.

The issue of New Territories village housing should also be tackled – not by offering villagers the lucrative opportunity to throw up gimcrack six-storey houses instead of the current three-storey ones – but by cleaning up the planning and development rules for the villages, so that they have proper piped gas and sewerage connectivity, and safely-planned infrastructure.

This back-of-the-envelope audit suggests we have ample options by which to capture the 1,200 hectares we need.

In addition, two obvious options were conspicuously omitted from Stanley Wong’s list. The first is redevelopment of Disneyland – or part of it. The park has lost money since it opened, is majority-owned by the government, and already has good infrastructure in place.

The second is to examine development of Hong Kong’s military sites, which amount to a substantial 2,700 hectares. Most of this is the Tsing Shan firing range (2,260 hectares), but the Chek Chue barracks in Stanley covers 120 hectares, while the barely-used Shek Kong barracks and village up near Fanling covers 159 hectares. The Tam Mei barracks and the San Wai barracks add a further 100 hectares.

PLA land offers range of sites for housing

The power to release such military land sits with Beijing, doubtless on the recommendation of the People’s Liberation Army, but surely there can be no harm in requesting. After all, Article 13 of the Garrison Law says that if military land is no longer needed for military purposes, it shall be turned over without compensation to the Hong Kong SAR for disposal. If that is not an open invitation, I don’t know what is.

My summary? Unless my back-of-the-envelope audit is hopelessly off the mark, Wong’s task force shows clearly that there is ample available land for the long term, without resorting to exotic and expensive reclamation plans. The main challenge is short-term.

And if we are really hard-pressed, we should ask the PLA.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view