Why Carrie Lam’s Lantau Tomorrow Vision should be rebranded ‘Freedom Island’
- Mike Rowse says the chief executive’s proposal will allow Hong Kong to build a township of the future and will also help free up land elsewhere
- The artificial island could feature green and open spaces, minimum flat sizes and better social facilities
If the plan to undertake large-scale reclamation to the east of Lantau is to get anywhere, the project badly needs a new name.
The whole idea got off to a bad start when then chief executive Leung Chun-ying introduced the scheme as the East Lantau Metropolis. At that time Leung was already politically unpopular, his personal brand was pretty toxic, so just about anything with his name on it was going to face opposition. But what kind of word is “metropolis” anyway? It sounds like something from a Batman film.
Current chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor revived the idea and made it the centrepiece of her recent policy address, calling it the Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Personally, I quite like the idea of having a chief executive with vision, and the courage to say so out loud in public. But most Hongkongers are a pretty cynical bunch and suspicious of anything which smacks of whimsy. They are in the same camp as former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt who once famously said: “Anybody having visions should consult a doctor.” So a rough ride was pretty much guaranteed.
Putting aside the issue of the name for a moment, we need to look calmly at the project’s advantages and disadvantages. Critics have zeroed in on three main issues: climate change will put all new reclamation at risk; the estimated cost will use up all of our fiscal reserves; the environmental implications, especially for marine habitat, are serious.
All three have an element of truth, which makes rebutting them outright hard, but closer scrutiny also suggests the actual situation is more nuanced and contrary views are also worth a hearing.
Watch: Why Carrie Lam’s Lantau reclamation plan is so controversial
Take climate change: I have argued in a previous column that the world needs to take radical remedial action to address it. A rise in sea levels of just a metre would have serious consequences for several low-lying countries and could lead to unmanageable migration flows. Substantial areas of Hong Kong – including much of the central business district for example – are only around five metres above sea level. However, the proposed reclamation does not introduce a new problem, it just accentuates an existing one. Moreover, now that we are aware of the problem, precautions can be taken in advance.
The effect on our fiscal reserves has also been overstated. Leaving aside that our reserves are actually closer to HK$2 trillion if the Exchange Fund surpluses are also factored in, the money is not going to be spent in one lump sum in a single year. The bill will be spread over several years, during which more revenue will come in. So whether the final cost is the estimated HK$500 billion or more, we will be able to afford it, especially if revenues from selling parts of the new island are also taken into account.
As regards the environment, there is nothing to suggest the area concerned has a particularly high ecological value. We need more land and, provided proper mitigating measures are taken, reclamation is a reasonable way of securing it.
Now look at the advantages. We do have land in the New Territories, which could and should be used but it is already spoken for by powerful vested interests. The big developers have bought millions of square feet of agricultural land which they are happy to bring forward for development at a speed of their own choosing that maximises profit. Attempts to force the pace are likely to be resisted by legal or other means: remember the assault on the Legislative Council when the government sought funding for development in the northern New Territories?
The administration has suggested public-private partnerships but already the cries of “collusion” ring out. Negotiations are never going to be simple, but the government’s hand would certainly be stronger if officials can point to upcoming reclamation as a viable alternative.
And not to be forgotten are the rural interests and their obsession with the small-house policy. Yes, the so-called traditional rights are of very dubious validity and ripe for review, but political realities cannot be ignored. Obstruction is guaranteed.
Now contemplate an alternative scenario: the Finance Committee gives speedy approval to funds for detailed feasibility studies on reclamation. Firm conclusions are reached on how big the reclamation can be and how best to implement it. Free from topographical constraints, our planners and engineers prepare a beautiful layout for a garden city with plenty of open space and the full range of social facilities. Plot ratios are sensible, minimum flat sizes are specified. This is what all of Hong Kong should look like.
Contracts start to be awarded: the new land will take time to arrive but it is on the way. In parallel, the government starts to take on the developers and the brownfield occupiers with a strengthened hand. The lever of the upcoming reclamation is available to speed up development of the land already there. Free from the influence of the Heung Yee Kuk and other vested interests, the government starts to reach reasonable deals that stand up to public scrutiny.
Lam needs to get the brand consultants to work on a new name for this project, which gives us the freedom to build the kind of city we will all be proud to call home. My suggestion is “Freedom Island”. Even the pan-democrats should like the sound of that.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]