Recently, public debate on whether golf courses, green belts or peripheral areas of country parks should be converted into land for housing has resurfaced. If such debate is anything to go by, this reflects one issue: land use and housing
are still thorny issues in Hong Kong.
There are several yardsticks usually used to demonstrate the severity of the city’s land and housing problems. They include the long waiting time for general applicants for public housing – six years
on average now – the more than 220,000 people
living in horrible conditions in subdivided flats, and the astronomical prices of private residential housing, meaning ordinary Hongkongers have to save every cent for at least 20 years to accumulate enough just for a down payment.
Most people attribute this less-desirable side of “Asia’s world city” to the scarcity of land for building homes, but I don’t believe this is really the root of the problem. On the contrary, Hong Kong does not lack land supply per se. Rather, the challenge is to be determined, fast and cost-effective in turning land that is available into homes for the people.
Why do I say this? Hong Kong is about 1.5 times larger than Singapore, a city state often referred to as one of its competitors
. Hong Kong covers about 1,100 sq km compared to around 720 sq km for Singapore.
Taking topography into account, both cities have comparable amounts of usable land as well as similarly sized populations – Hong Kong has around 7.4 million people; Singapore, 5.4 million. Yet, Singapore is not struggling with housing problems
. Why has it been able to effectively use its limited land resources to build homes for its citizens, while it remains a challenge for us to explore using every square inch of our land?
Again, numbers can shed light on this. Singapore’s nature reserves, akin to our country parks, occupy around 4.5 per cent of the city’s total land area whereas Hong Kong country parks
account for nearly 40 per cent of our land.
In fact, only about 7 per cent
of the total developed land in Hong Kong, or some 25 per cent of the city’s total land area, is classified as residential. Yet, Singapore often comes across as a much “greener” city than Hong Kong despite the fact that both are highly urbanised. Such differences can partly be attributed to different approaches towards development, land use and planning.
If the developed land areas and country parks account for about 65 per cent of Hong Kong’s total land, what about the other 35 per cent? According to the Civil Engineering and Development Department, most of these areas are wetlands, grasslands, sites of special scientific interest or areas near country parks where development is restricted but not completely prohibited. Some of that 35 per cent is being left idle, particularly rural land in the New Territories or on outlying islands, if it is not being used as brownfields.
Given these large swathes of land, it is no surprise that there have long been demands for the government to release some portions of country parks to boost land supply and help solve the housing crunch once for all. This is seen by some as preferable to building on part of the Fanling golf course, for example, which risks harming rare fauna and flora and the natural habitat of endangered crabs
to produce only a few hectares for housing.
This seems a drop in the ocean and an example of the piecemeal approach to solving our extensive land and housing problems. However, it would undoubtedly be controversial to carve out parts of our country parks, with staunch opposition from the nature-loving public and environmental groups
to be expected.
Country parks are considered to be everyone’s backyard, while they also have high ecological value. Besides, large parts might not be suitable for development, given the difficult terrain.
According to government estimates, Hong Kong needs some 3,000 hectares
of land in the long term to fully meet housing demand. So, it’s important for officials to take a holistic approach while focusing on strategic large-scale projects such as the Lantau Tomorrow Vision and the Northern Metropolis project.
Both offer a valuable opportunity to relocate people from other neighbourhoods and move business and commercial districts from both sides of the harbour to help make the city less crowded and with more lush green areas, similar to Singapore.
Certainly, these two projects won’t tackle near-term land and housing problems. There is low-hanging fruit to be grasped in the form of idle agricultural land, green belts – some of which are on the fringes of country parks
– as well as brownfield sites in the New Territories.
It will be less costly and time-consuming to use all such land for housing, given that road networks and other infrastructure are already installed nearby. For example, there is estimated to be at least 1,100 hectares of brownfield sites, most of which are being used as junkyards and dumping grounds for industrial waste or storage, throughout the New Territories.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po recently cited a green-zone site bordering Tai Lam Country Park
, which is one example of a short-term, quick-fix solution to mitigate the housing and land crunch. According to Chan, that site could produce about 35,000 housing units. In other words, Hong Kong does have land, but it needs the courage and determination to identify and transform land use and planning.
Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group and a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference