Why Lantau reclamation would breed a white elephant, and there’s nothing ‘unavoidable’ about it

Tom Yam says the rising tide of voices in favour of large-scale reclamation as the only solution to Hong Kong’s housing crisis is based on skewed numbers and represents the interests of the developer and big business lobby that will profit from the scheme

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 5:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 10:15am

Reclamation is unavoidable, says Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. What’s more, it must be “large scale” to create land for urgently needed housing and for long-term economic development. You can be sure a large chunk of Lam’s policy address will lay out reclamation as the solution to most, if not all, of Hong Kong's problems.

But is it? Even green groups would agree that near-shore, cost-effective reclamation should be considered. But the extremely high cost, complexity, risks and environmental consequences of large-scale reclamation in the middle of the sea make it a wholly different animal. And that animal will turn out to be the kind of white elephant beloved of property tycoons and construction companies.

Let's put a name to the large-scale reclamation that Lam favours: the East Lantau Metropolis, proposed by the government. It is estimated this artificial island of 1,000 hectares, to house up to 700,000 people, will  cost HK$470 billion. But even an animal as massive as this is not monstrous enough for the Our Hong Kong Foundation, a think tank chaired by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. It is now lobbying for an Enhanced East Lantau Metropolis, doubling the size to 2,200 hectares of reclaimed land, housing up to 1.1 million at an estimated cost of HK$700 billion.

Before committing to the biggest infrastructure project in Hong Kong’s history, likely to take 20 to 30 years, costing more than the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, third runway and high-speed rail link to the mainland combined, detailed scrutiny of its viability is imperative. Astoundingly, in glossy brochures and glib speeches, government and foundation officials deploy skewed projections, emotive images and feel-good scenarios in place of serious analysis.

They begin by inflating the demand for land. The government puts demand at 4,800 hectares, on the assumption that 300,000 buildings older than 75 years need to be redeveloped. By lowering the threshold to 50 years, Our Hong Kong Foundation bloated the buildings that need to be developed to 600,000. It further increased the demand for land to 9,000 hectares by assuming a plot ratio of 3.6, much less than the Planning Department’s guideline of 6.5 for new development areas. Many experts consider these estimates excessive.

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Then they gloss over potentially serious issues. Fundamental to these Lantau reclamation plans is the viability of their location. Such a city-in-the-sea, kilometres from land, will be vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather. Reclaiming a huge swathe of sea will shrink the navigable waterways, narrow some passages and strengthen currents, making it more hazardous for marine traffic. Other areas will be almost enclosed, deadening the marine environment.

Reclamation cannot improve the lot of the 210,000 residents in the 93,000 partitioned units, or shorten the waiting time of 5.3 years for public housing

And were it viable, is it needed? Due to the ageing population and declining birth rate, Hong Kong’s population will peak at 8.22 million in 2043 and decrease to 7.72 million in 2066. Yet with this new metropolis, or its enhanced version, Hong Kong will have the capacity to house 9 to 9.4 million people. Why create unnecessary capacity at astronomical cost, draining funds from social welfare, education and public health?

Both the government and the foundation use heart-rending images of families currently in dire housing to sway public opinion. But creating a new town on existing land takes 12 to 15 years; longer if the land has to be reclaimed. Thus, reclamation cannot improve the lot of the 210,000 residents in the 93,000 partitioned units, or shorten the waiting time of 5.3 years for public housing.

So if the Enhanced East Lantau Metropolis plans don’t provide more housing in the short term and lead to overcapacity in the long term, can it be justified for future economic development? Its lobbyists invoke “integration” with the Greater Bay Area and Belt and Road Initiative in vague terms, never articulating precisely which sectors of the economy will benefit and to what degree. Unlike Pudong and Singapore, where reclaimed land fit into a specific economic strategy, in Hong Kong the strategy seems to comprise a plethora of grandiose slogans like “game changer” backed up by no deliverables.

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The figures that the foundation has produced are so unrealistic as to be laughable. It claims a fast-tracked Enhanced East Lantau Metropolis can be ready for initial residential intake in 11 years (2029) and completed in another three years.

Think about that: 14 years to reclaim 2,200 hectares from the sea, construct 37km of railways and 20km of roads, five undersea tunnels, two tunnels through Lantau’s mountains, along with sewerage, utilities, schools, hospitals, etc, to support 1.1 million people. Then think about the big projects in the past decade that have all failed timing and cost predictions, and compromised safety.

Our Hong Kong Foundation is campaigning for reclamation on a scale even larger than the government has proposed, but otherwise they are singing from the same song sheet. And it’s the usual two-part harmony.

The foundation’s governors and supporters represent the major developers, financial groups, big business and powerful insiders – New World, Henderson, Hang Lung, Sino Group, Shui On, Shimao, Shun Tak, Fung Group, Lan Kwai Fong Group, Arthur Li, Elsie Leung, and Bernard Chan. So it has deep pockets to lobby for reclamation-centric development.

The foundation and Carrie Lam are talking up a “fast track” approach towards reclamation, even before the end of the current public consultation on land supply. Whatever the results, expect Lam to use them to claim a public consensus for reclamation in her October policy address. After all, it’s “unavoidable”.

Tom Yam is a member of the Citizens Task Force on Land Resources, a group of professionals dedicated to broaden and facilitate the debate to critical issues including sustainable development, the optimal uses of land, and the conservation of resources