Rational debate needed on Lantau reclamation for our future

  • Its scale may be unprecedented but we must continuously seek out-of-the-box solutions to the daunting challenges facing us, writes Ken Chu
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 9:30pm

Itis often said that civilised, rational debate can help you discover and illuminate the truth. Unfortunately, emotions and misinformed judgments have clouded the public debate over the proposed reclamation project to build 1,700 hectares of artificial islands in the waters around Kau Yi Chau and Hei Ling Chau, the two small islands off the eastern shore of Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island.

There have been many unfounded suspicions and unscientific arguments to challenge this islands proposal which the government suggests will house 1.1 million.

Indeed, there is nothing wrong evaluating this proposal – better known as the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” – critically. After all, the government will be spending in the region of HK$500 billion, essentially taxpayers’ money.

Some critics contend the total cost could reach HK$1 trillion given a series of public infrastructure and railroad project cost overruns in recent years. They argue that government coffers could be completely drained.

However, these same critics ignore the fact that the government is financially sound with negligible public debt. With record reserves of HK$1.12 trillion, the government should be able to finance the project.

Artificial island a disaster in the making for Hong Kong

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor already noted in her policy address that the project would happen in phases and there would be no question of draining the reserves in one go.

In addition, because of Hong Kong’s AA-plus credit rating with stable outlook from S&P, government bonds can be issued to raise funds, a possibility that the government would not dismiss, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po told media after his trip to the annual International Monetary Fund meeting in Bali.

Government bonds are common even among financially strong governments. As long as a government is not overextended, issuing sovereign bonds can invigorate a bond market.

Moreover, critics might have disregarded a fact highlighted by Chan. Some of the costs can be recouped by selling land on the artificial islands. They need not be an exercise in bleeding cash.

And, while the environmental concerns raised are not totally groundless and unrealistic, there are ways to mitigate them. Environmental protection measures put in place before the project is begun can lessen the impact of seabed dredging and subsequent dumping of excavated materials that can lead to permanent damage of the natural habitats of many marine creatures.

In addition, a former head of Hong Kong Observatory also noted the threat posed by climate change to the proposed islands which could be devastated by rising sea levels and violent typhoons. However, this is a rhetorical argument and wouldn’t critics agree the city faces imminent land and housing problems?

Another criticism of the Lantau plan is that Hong Kong does not lack land but rather well thought-out land-use plans. These critics say only 24 per cent of Hong Kong’s total land area of 1,110 sq km is built-up while the rest is not-for-development or non-built-up land.

Artificial island is a chance to re-imagine Hong Kong

But let’s be realistic: most of the city’s unused land consists of country parks which account for 40 per cent of our total land area. Hong Kong is largely mountainous, and not easily built on except at great cost to the developer and the environment.

While Lantau Tomorrow is not aimed at solving our land and housing problems in the immediate future, we must not fail to plan for coming generations. A phased development plan is proof that the government is taking a calibrated and assessed approach, allowing for adjustments to this mega reclamation project along the way. Its scale may be unprecedented and there remain many challenges, but we must continuously and tirelessly seek out-of-the-box solutions to the daunting challenges facing us as a society.

Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group and a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference