Conflict of interest fears loom over Hong Kong golf course takeover for housing as advisers revealed to be club members
Ahead of city’s task force on land supply discussing private recreational sites, Post learns four influential figures have lobbied or approached panel to oppose building flats on exclusive New Territories course
Government land advisers will be urged to be upfront about any potential conflict of interest before mulling over plans to develop a Hong Kong golf course for housing, as it emerged that the committee’s vice-chair and another member belongs to an exclusive golf club.
Sources also told the Post that four people, who include former and current senior executives at statutory corporations, have lobbied or approached members of the government-appointed Task Force on Land Supply to oppose building flats on the 170-hectare course in Fanling.
The task force was due to meet on Saturday to discuss whether private recreational sites, including golf courses, should be considered for development to ease the city’s housing shortage.
The meeting was postponed from last Tuesday to give the government more time to prepare papers for the discussion.
Task force chairman Stanley Wong Yuen-fai said he would ask members to make a formal declaration of interest before the meeting if they belonged to the Hong Kong Golf Club or any other recreational club.
In addition, Wong would ask whether anyone had been approached by or had formal discussions with any parties linked to the golf course.
“It will be up to the task force as a whole to decide whether a declaration is enough, or whether one should not participate in the meeting [or parts of the discussion],” he said.
A source revealed to the Post that task force vice-chairman Greg Wong Chak-yan is a member of the golf club, which runs the Fanling course. But it was understood he had already made his membership known to the panel’s chairman and secretary and would make a declaration when the meeting agenda was confirmed.
The vice-chairman could not be reached for comment.
Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, a former chairman of the Hospital Authority, also confirmed that he was a long-time member of the club and would sit out of Saturday’s meeting if necessary.
The news came after the Post reported that a Planning Department technical study had found it feasible to build 5,000 to 6,000 flats on part of the course.
The recommended area comprises the Old Course – the oldest of three sections of the entire course – and the club’s car park. Both are located near major infrastructure and existing public housing.
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Sources said that four people lobbied or approached members of the task force to save the golf course from being developed.
It emerged that a key lobbyist commissioned by the golf club was a former Democratic Party lawmaker. The party has been urging the government to develop the golf course for housing.
Fred Li Wah-ming, who started a PR firm in 2012 after he retired from the Legislative Council, told the Post he saw no problem in taking up the job even if his duties were counter to his party’s stance.
Li, who began formally lobbying for the club this month, said he was invited to do so because he had reasonably good ties across the political spectrum.
“My job is to lobby all stakeholders, not only the task force members but also pressure groups, lawmakers and even the government,” he said, referring to officials from the Development Bureau and Home Affairs Bureau.
Li believed the golf course was now at a “critical juncture”. He said the club had commissioned another PR agency to lobby, but declined to name it.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said it was not necessary for Li to declare his business dealings to the party. He called him an ordinary party member as he no longer held public office.
“I do not see any problem here,” Wu said. “We would not be swayed even if Li were sent to lobby us.”
Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan Siu-kin was a key proponent of the government taking back the club’s land for developing public housing, which he estimated could provide as many as 90,000 units.
Another lobbyist was revealed to be Billy Lam Chung-lun, a former managing director of the Urban Renewal Authority. It was not clear whether Lam was advocating on behalf of the golf club.
He declined to comment.
Task force member Wong Kwun, a former president of the Federation of Public Housing Estates, confirmed to the Post he had been approached by Li’s firm and that Li had personally arranged a meeting with him in early January.
Wong said he was furnished information for his consideration, such as the club’s long history, its openness to the public and importance in nurturing professional golf talent.
He added he did not see any problem with lobbying. He said he was not approached by any other individuals or firms but would not be surprised if other groups were engaging in public lobbying to preserve the golf course too.
The task force chairman said it was unfortunate that land issues had to be politicised.
“Listening to different stakeholders is one of the roles and responsibilities of the task force,” Wong said. “Different voices have to be heard. Lobbying from different stakeholders should not be regarded negatively.” He described the circumstances as similar to receiving petitions from green groups who opposed developing country parks.
“But we understand the community may have different views, so [asking people to declare their interests before the meeting] would be better, then at least people would be clear if there were any formal discussions,” he said.
The Home Affairs Bureau is now reviewing some 67 private recreational leases involving the 400 hectares of land across the city.
The golf course is leased to the Hong Kong Golf Club until August 2020. The rent for 2016/17 was HK$2.4 million (US$307,000).