Hong Kong is starved of usable land, and New Territories North offers real hope
Lucy Kwan and Wong Yat Chun say Hong Kong’s chronic land shortage is at the root of most of its socio-economic problems, meaning development of New Territories North is essential for more than just housing
The land shortage is the root of most socio-economic problems in Hong Kong, leading to high property prices, expensive rents and less competitive products or services in some industries. It contributes to de-industrialisation, lack of industry diversity, a poorer living environment, developer hegemony and widespread pessimism.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor knows the only cure is to increase land supply for both economic and residential use. While she mentions Lantau, particularly the East Lantau Metropolis concept and the long overdue determination to develop brownfield sites as the main hopes, the New Territories North frontier area remains a solution that has yet to be duly explored.
Although Hong Kong has a large area of undeveloped land, nearly 60 per cent of it is country parks, originally designed to protect the hygiene of the water catchment area of our reservoirs. These country parks and special conservation areas cover 44,312 hectares.
However, development of even the peripheral non-green areas seems to invoke opposition from environmental groups. The brownfield sites are not idle and are commonly used for truck parks, logistics operations and storage areas for construction machinery and materials.
Some are privately owned and thus development involves land resumption, plus not all of them can achieve economies of scale due to scattered locations, irregular shape or contamination.
The policy address, when dealing with land supply, has little mention of the New Territories North frontier area, only mentioning it as a strategic growth region.
The frontier area, from Sha Tau Kok to San Tin covers some 2,800 hectares, which were delineated as inaccessible to all residents without a permit. However, most areas have been released over the past 10 years. These former closed areas are sparsely populated, with only a few thousand residents. The land is mostly held by the government and not declared as country parks.
Government engineers and planners have, with consultants, already conducted comprehensive research to assess the feasibility and opportunities in New Territories North. It has been highlighted as one area that can create extra capacity for Hong Kong up to 2046. Regrettably, this should have received more public attention and recognition.
We believe there are at least four advantages to developing the frontier area.
First, it has 1,500 hectares of virgin land designated as green belt on top of 400 hectares of conservation area. These 1,500 hectares have relatively few ownership, tenancy or legislative complications. It is strategically located, with close proximity to cities in the Greater Bay Area in an ecofriendly, liveable setting that is shielded from overexposure to the ocean or typhoons. It would be convenient for the Hong Kong government and others in the bay area to come up with collaboration projects over the long term.
Second, its proximity to Shenzhen central business district makes it well placed to enjoy the dividends of Hong Kong-Shenzhen interaction by bridging the strengths of the two cities. It has the potential to be a significant economic zone of Hong Kong in the future by attracting local, mainland and international investors and start-ups. Intrinsically, it has inherited the advantages of the spillover development effect from the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park in the Lok Ma Chau Loop.
Third, realising its economic potential creates job opportunities and housing needs and thus, a sustainable community. According to the feasibility study, the area has the capacity to create over 200,000 jobs and house more than 400,000, without accounting for potential development from the Greater Bay Area. With appropriate infrastructure investment and the public housing development plan, it could evolve organically through sustainable socio-economic development.
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Finally, the prosperity of area could add an economic boost to adjacent towns, including the proposed Fanling North or Kwu Tung New Development Areas, or the older Tin Shui Wai/Yuen Long area, which have been criticised for a lack of employment opportunities and long commuting distance to the central business zone of Hong Kong.
The frontier area could revitalise some older towns and abandoned villages through job creation and new economic activities, turning past inertia into life and motion. The development of the area would be an important piece of the puzzle for the success of these other New Territories development areas.
In this way, development of the frontier area could be one of the best strategic moves to rekindle hope for Hong Kong. Moreover, the initiative would address the north-south imbalance of job opportunities, making far better sense for land utilisation across Hong Kong. It would improve livelihoods, including for those living in urban subdivided units or rural residents, who would benefit from more sophisticated and sustainable development.
The Hong Kong government should formulate the overall approach to planning, with a broad land-use concept under the context of the Greater Bay Area. The crux of our socio-economic issues is land supply. Not only does the frontier area give us a solution, it also offers hope for Hong Kong to move forward. Although many of the details have to be worked out it nevertheless presents a blueprint to explore other possibilities.
Lucy Kwan is an honorary assistant professor in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of Hong Kong, where Wong Yat Chun is an undergraduate student