In unprecedented move, thousands of Hong Kong villagers spared eviction under new town plan
Preliminary study on northern New Territories shows squatter settlements may be allowed to stay alongside indigenous villages which have for years avoided being caught in the cross hairs of government development
Thousands of Hong Kong villagers who are mostly living in squatter settlements could avoid eviction if their homes in the New Territories become part of a new town proposal under a landmark shift in the approach to planning, the Post has learned.
The plan is part of a new government approach to integrate, respect and preserve urban and rural communities along with their natural landscape in Hong Kong’s last frontier. If fulfilled, squatters could be granted similar privileges to indigenous villagers in terms of how their homes are spared from development.
The move is seen as one that could help minimise opposition towards new town projects, which could pave the way for a smoother process to address the city’s housing crisis.
In a preliminary study looking into developing 720 hectares of land in the northern New Territories, some 43 clusters are planned for “existing settlements”, according to a Post review of the layout.
In Ta Kwu Ling and Ping Che, where most of these clusters are concentrated, the locations match existing non-indigenous villages, most of which are squatter settlements. The villages are classified as non-indigenous because they were established after the New Territories were leased to Britain in 1898.
For years, only recognised indigenous villages were spared from government development as these residents were entitled to be rehoused in the area if they had to move out of existing homes.
Hong Kong has 642 recognised, indigenous villages – settlements that were in existence in 1898 or before. The villagers’ interests and rights are represented and protected by the Heung Yee Kuk, a powerful, government advisory body that also holds seats in the city’s Legislative Council.
Non-indigenous villages in the cross hairs of development were usually bulldozed, and households could only expect compensation amounting to HK$600,000 (US$76,000), or a public flat if they met income and asset criteria.
Responding to inquiries, the Development Bureau said the latest move was part of adopting a “more harmonious approach to foster urban-rural-nature integration” and “in line with contemporary public aspirations” to respect and preserve established rural communities, cultural heritage and farming activities “where possible”.
A government source familiar with the matter confirmed it was a new approach intending to address the demands of thousands of villagers whose homes were razed to the ground.
Jimmy Leung Cheuk-fai, who served as the government’s director of planning before retiring in 2012, said the approach matched the administration’s “people-oriented philosophy”.
“I don’t think the government is keen on revisiting those scenes of conflict and arguments that happened before,” he said.
In Hung Shui Kiu, Kwu Tung North and Fanling North where new towns are slated for 2023, at least 7,800 residents will be displaced. The controversial projects have sparked heated protests, even ending in jail terms for 13 activists who stormed the Legislative Council in 2014.
At a time when skyrocketing property prices have made housing unaffordable for the majority, the government has been eyeing the northern New Territories as a strategic growth area to meet the city’s housing and economic needs for 2030 and beyond.
The study that was reviewed by the Post, released in February, suggests that three potential development areas can house up to 350,000 people, with space for a logistics hub and innovation and technology industries.
The area can provide 215,000 jobs and development would be completed in 22 and 26 years if authorities proceed.
Under the plan, around 180 hectares, or about a quarter of the total development area, are designated for villages and existing settlements, while 280 hectares are identified for new residential units.
The government does not have a breakdown of the number of non-indigenous villagers who would benefit from the new approach.
At least 1,000 non-indigenous villagers live in the Ta Kwu Ling and Ping Che area among an estimated 12,000 within the total region studied, according to census data and the kuk.
Meanwhile Lee Wing-tat, chairman of policy think tank Land Watch, said he believed that reducing opposition was a big consideration behind the change in attitude.
“There is not one new development area that is on schedule. If they continue with the old approach, development [would drag on],” he said.
But Yeung Koon-ping, whose family has lived in a 400 sq ft house for more than 50 years in Ping Yeung San Tsuen, a non-indigenous village, has doubts on whether the government would really follow through on its fresh approach.
“It’s only a preliminary study right now. They could change their minds anytime,” he said.
Yeung added that residents should instead be consulted under a bottom-up planning approach.
Lam Kam-kwai, vice-chairman of the Ta Kwu Ling district rural committee, said they were disappointed with the proposal, which would mean new communities sharing the same area with present ones.
“The disparity between the rich and the poor will be even more obvious when everything around is developed and the poor still live in squatter huts,” Lam said.
The government said old and new communities could coexist with each other, and that the existing rural environment would benefit from an integrated provision of public and community facilities, as well as new technology.