Forget reclamation. Hong Kong should build a floating city

  • Richard Harris says critics are right to note that massive reclamation in Lantau is too costly to be worth the returns, not to mention the risk of storms triggered by climate change. There’s a better way to make use of our coastal waters
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 10:46pm

It is a universally acknowledged truth that there is an enormous amount of land in Hong Kong’s New Territories that could be developed. Sitting on a dilapidated but seaworthy boat sipping a rum recently, the whole of Tseung Kwan O lay before me as a large catchment area of poorly utilised land.

One would hope that the hapless Stanley Wong Yuen-fai and his Task Force on Land Supply has spotted this one, as the land area is not far short of half the size of Kowloon. A short MTR extension and it would be as big as Sha Tin or Tuen Mun, and just as convenient.

Unfortunately, his rug was well and truly pulled from under him by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who came out of the left field with her Lantau Tomorrow Vision plan. More a case of double vision after a New Year party, the plan is an unimaginative, and ultimately futile, way of creating more land for building. One would have thought Typhoon Mangkhut’s four-metre tidal surge and the spectre of sea-level rises due to global warming would have made the idea dead on arrival.

Not a bit of it. Lam even described concerns about the mind-numbing cost as “narrow-minded”. Well, let’s put on the blinkers and see how the project works financially. The Lantau Folly is estimated to cost HK$500 billion (US$64 billion) to build. These projects always overshoot – just ask MTR Corporation or builders of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, and double is a good rule of thumb. A trillion-dollar project would mop up almost all our reserves. That’s a lot of hospitals, schools and comfort for the elderly – the people that made Hong Kong in the first place.

The platform itself would cost around HK$5,500 per square foot to build, which translates into at least HK$4 million for a 400 sq ft apartment. That’s 21 years’ salary for the average wage earner – as long as he spends it on nothing else!

Rational debate needed on Lantau reclamation for our future

In selling off the land, the government gets its money back (presumably to throw it all again into the sea). A few lucky public tenants get to live in very expensive flats and the developers get the rest to flog off at sky-high prices. Wouldn’t it be easier to give money to carefully selected low-wage earners, a slightly larger amount to the engineers, and a huge bag of cash to the property developers – and cut out the middle man?

The net result is that we have spent all our reserves and created just 15 per cent more flats than we have now. I don’t have to take my shoes and socks off to do the counting to see that it is a non-starter.

There is almost as much brownfield acreage in the New Territories as the Lantau Tomorrow Vision – and it could be developed tomorrow, rather than the distant future. The government should legislate for owners to use it or lose it. There are precedents in Taiwan, the Philippines and India, where owners are taxed if they do not develop. Land supply is a serious issue, especially in the light of the 900,000 one-way permit holders landing since 1997. Immigration is not unwelcome and is needed for our economy to grow, but there is nowhere to put them.

We should be thinking out of the box, even if some of recent suggestions are far-fetched. Building 5,000 luxury flats on the Fanling golf course would add fewer than 0.2 per cent to the housing stock. Building in country parks when there is so much brownfield, is obviously a developer’s idea. Building on military land just isn’t going to happen.

Yet, the reclamation debate pinpoints our one important asset: how to use our substantial coastal waters. Out of the 100 biggest cities in the world, nearly four-fifths are next to water. Hong Kong used to have the picturesque but smelly fishing villages in the typhoon shelters and still boasts a stilt village in Tai O. Perhaps we should learn from our ancestors about constructing a modern floating city.

Can Hong Kong make good on eight options to free up land?

Already, a number of countries, including the Netherlands, are looking at the concept. Services can be carried on permanent piled structures. The city would be protected from typhoon surges by a typhoon shelter, and the rise and fall of the tides by its flotation. It would be vastly cheaper than reclamation, could be built in stages, and be available very quickly. Tseung Kwan O alone could provide 1,000 hectares.

Sea living works for Venice; and if you think skyscrapers are not possible, the cruise liner Queen Elizabeth is 18 storeys tall. That height is just right for the government-subvented middle-income housing that is so desperately needed to help Hong Kong citizens onto the property ladder.

Maybe the recently evicted and much-lamented Discovery Bay boat dwellers had the right idea.

Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment and a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster, and financial expert witness