Why reclamation, not public housing, is Hong Kong’s path to solving the housing crisis
Ronny Tong says Hong Kong has been historically built on reclaimed land and that this remains the most cost-effective and efficient way for the city to meet its housing and economic needs
Apart from political reform, you could say trying to create land for development is the next most controversial issue facing Hong Kong in recent years. Yes, Hong Kong is an island, and yes, we have more hills than flatland, but still, developed areas only represent less than 25 per cent of our total area. This is in comparison with 40 per cent of our area being designated country parks and natural reserves. And yet, we have long been stuck with the infamous reputation of being a concrete jungle and having the smallest living space per capita in this region. What is our problem?
During the colonial era, we were somewhat more alert to problems created by our growing population. In the 1960s and 1970s, we witnessed the dawn of new towns such as Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun, quickly followed by Tai Po, Yuen Long, Fanling-Sheung Shui, Tsing Yi, Tseung Kwan O, Tin Shui Wai and Ma On Shan.
We did not let up even when we got close to the handover. In 1996, we began developing North Lantau, Tung Chung and Tai Ho Wan. We did a lot of this by reclamation. All in all, up until 1997, we reclaimed some 60 sq km of land, or about 20 per cent of our built-up area. Such was our effort in the colonial days.
Sadly, with the return of sovereignty to China, a more open government with a higher degree of autonomy and greater democracy, we began to slow down our effort to tackle our housing problems until we practically stopped all public and subsidised housing projects during the Donald Tsang administration. That is, however, not our only problem.
Take the northeast New Territories development as an example. Planning officially started in 2008 and, in 2012, the matter was first introduced in the Legislative Council. A decade later, we still have not completely resolved the issue of resumption of land, whereby the government is authorised to repossess land for a public purpose. Some would say, at this rate, reclamation will be a just as, if not a more, efficient way of creating land for development.
So what has gone wrong? Some suggest that this is the result of a more open, democratic and pluralistic society. In the colonial era, there was no filibustering in Legco, none, or very few, judicial reviews, no daily protests, and perhaps most importantly, no accountable government.
Today, every single policy or initiative proposed by the government is subjected to the most minute examination, if not vilification, by the media and the public, not to mention politicians sitting in the air-conditioned Legco chamber.
This is the price we pay for moving from a colony to an open, democratic and pluralistic society – but is there a way out?
In an open, democratic and pluralistic society, it is inevitable that people tend to look more closely to their individual private interests. This is by no means a sin; rather, it is a right. What we therefore need, is a proper, and a more focused, promotion of the greater good. We need a common vision, a clear goal.
We need to convince the public there is a rainbow at the end of the quest, which will answer their individual needs as well as the public good. That is why, my think tank, Path of Democracy, is advocating a vision instead of a menu of alternatives in the current “big debate” on land supply.
We need also to think big and far. Hong Kong is not, and we have no wish to make it, a public housing city. This is our home. We want proper housing for everyone, but not at the cost of maintaining, or even more terrifying, reducing our living space per capita. We want proper district communities.
In other words, we do not want public housing or second-class communities but a proper mix of public and private residences sharing the same living environment and adequate district amenities like parks, hospitals, schools, libraries and other recreational and cultural facilities. We want adequate and convenient communication with, and transport to and from, other districts and our places of work. In short, we want better quality of life. Is that too much to ask?
We also need to think of our economic future and our place in this corner of China. Public housing alone will not sustain Hong Kong as a world city. A better and sustainable economy will.
We need to think about why many international investors and world-class enterprises choose Singapore over Hong Kong. Why is our commercial rent driving people away and preventing our young people from sharpening their commercial skills under an international framework of global commerce? We need to think in terms of how best to benefit from unprecedented national strategies such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area. Put bluntly, we need space for economic development as much as building houses.
The clear and unequivocal answer to all this must be: we need to reclaim land again. We need to reclaim large areas big enough to do all the things we say we should do above.
Some say that since we cannot reclaim Victoria Harbour or anywhere near developed areas, any large-scale reclamation would be too time consuming, too expensive and too far away in terms of travelling distances.
Let’s look into these objections. Take the example of the third runway. The Airport Authority expects to reclaim 650 hectares in four years. Even taking into account time to build other infrastructure, this time frame shows reclamation does not necessarily take considerably longer to create buildable land than developing the Northeast territories.
Again, using the third runway project as a yardstick, it cost the Airport Authority about HK$65 billion to reclaim 650 hectares, which amounts to about HK$1,000 per square foot; add the cost of other infrastructure and allowances and we are talking about land at around HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 a square foot. Even at HK$10,000 a square foot, it is a bargain at today’s prices.
What about travelling to work? Here, we are talking about a new town; a new community and a new economic centre. If we reclaim East Lantau, as originally proposed and studied in the Hong Kong 2030 Plus blueprint, it will not only be a new economic centre, but a new logistics hub with the airport and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge nearby. Indeed, with reclamation and the sudden availability of a large chunk of virgin land, there is little limit to what we can do. So why not think big and far?
If we start thinking in these terms, we would quickly realise that the answer does not lie in destroying a golf course, or even going full steam ahead with the northeast New Territories development.
We have a five-month consultation going on. Unfortunately, the debate of this consultation is not going in the direction we strongly believe we should be heading. We are bickering about small issues, shouting “not in my backyard” or class struggle slogans, and at the end of the day, no one is the wiser. Let us call a halt to this stalemate and look towards the future.
Ronny Tong, QC, SC, JP, is convenor of Path of Democracy