Reclamation is Hong Kong’s best answer to the land supply problem in the long run
Bernard Chan says taking land from country parks, the Fanling golf course, unused New Territories land and brownfield sites would either do more harm than good or be stymied by legal challenges. Land reclamation has its obstacles, but will leave a better housing environment for the next generation
The debate on land supply in Hong Kong has aroused a lot more interest and discussion than most public consultation and engagement exercises. This is probably because our most pressing issue – a shortage of affordable housing – is directly related to land.
However, current housing prices and long-term land supply are in many ways separate issues.
Current housing prices are obviously far higher than many end users can afford. The market is distorted by low interest rates and other trends which cannot last. It would be foolish to make specific predictions, but there will come a time when things change and valuations become more realistic.
The debate over land supply should look beyond this. Our immediate housing situation is a mess: tiny homes, very high prices and overdeveloped urban environments. If we are forward-thinking, we should be making sure we do better for the future.
Unfortunately, the easiest land options are potentially the worst. It would be simple to find more land for housing by taking small slices off country parks. But as environmentalists point out, it almost certainly wouldn’t stop there. Future governments would go back for more – and country parks as we know them would be finished.
Some options might have popular appeal but wouldn’t solve our basic problem.
Some people would like to turn the golf course at Fanling into housing. But this would be a gesture rather than a solution to the real problem of land supply. I am not a golfer (though my company has a Hong Kong Golf Club debenture), but the Fanling course is a beautiful area that could not be replaced. I do support the idea of opening it up more for the wider community to enjoy.
Politically, the idea of resuming developers’ unused land in the New Territories is also quite popular. But in practice such an effort would probably be bogged down in legal challenges and other difficulties. We could get quicker results by offering landowners positive incentives to develop – but then we run into public hostility to “collusion” with developers.
Using brownfield sites in the New Territories also sounds easy. But we are talking about hundreds of small plots of land, each with its own legal and planning issues.
In the short to medium term, we have no choice but to carry on finding and developing land on a small-scale, piece-by-piece basis. This points to agricultural and brownfield sites. It will involve ownership problems, infrastructure challenges and probably resistance from residents in adjoining areas.
It will be inefficient. We might maintain a barely adequate supply of housing, but the new flats will probably still be quite small, and the new settlements will be densely developed.
When I chaired the Council for Sustainable Development, we recommended various planning reforms to make urban areas less crowded and more liveable. Not much happened because officials were under pressure to squeeze more homes into the available space.
This is frustrating. But it seems clear to me that if we really want to rethink our urban environment and improve quality of life – on a serious scale – we need to find a long-term supply of decent quantities of land. And the realistic way to create much larger, new, empty space is through reclamation.
Various groups have been making proposals for major reclamation recently. I was involved in an Our Hong Kong Foundation idea for a 2,200-hectare artificial island east of Lantau, which could house a million people. Some other proposals are not on such a big scale.
Obviously, there are objections – notably about the financial costs or environmental impact. But the potential benefits for Hong Kong would be huge.
Why land in Hong Kong is so expensive
Put briefly, the government could for the first time have significant empty land available. There would be far less bureaucratic pressure to maximise revenue from land sales. And officials could plan from scratch.
The government could decide how big flats should be, how many should be public housing, or how much the private ones should cost. It could design “smart city” features, leisure facilities, homes for the elderly and green transport systems that we can only dream about today. It would also provide extra capacity for when older districts need to be redeveloped in the decades ahead.
This is a visionary idea. It is not going to solve the current housing situation. It would do something even more important – it would ensure that the next generation has something much better.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council