Precious resource wasted: Vacant Hong Kong schools a 'breach of duty' by government as properties left to rot

Around 80 per cent of the 234 vacant schools in the past decade were primary schools

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 3:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 2:30am

Land-strapped Hong Kong is sitting on hectares of unused land in the shape of more than 100 empty and abandoned schools scattered across the territory.

The potentially precious yet idle land bank - revealed in a damning report released by the Director of Audit yesterday - has sparked criticism of the government.

Democratic Party chief executive Lam Cheuk-ting, an advocate of redeveloping vacant school sites, described the situation as "a waste of precious public resources".

"This is an obvious serious breach of duty on the government's part. They always say Hong Kong has a shortage of land … yet what they are doing is wasting previous public resources," said Lam, who has made previous calls on the government to reopen new schools to ease the squeeze on school places.

As the city faces a squeeze both on land available for much needed housing and an annual clamour for primary school places, it emerged that nearly half of the 200 school premises vacated in recent years sit empty and decaying with no plan in place for redevelopment.

The twin problems are largely due to the combined effects of an ageing population and the rise of international schools.

That number includes eight properties controlled by the Education Bureau which sit unused despite three of them being vacant for over a decade.

Yesterday's audit report found that 105 of 234 vacant school premises remain empty today, including 29 empty school lots still held by the Education Bureau and not returned to the government for land use reallocation.

Eight of the 29 school lots have never been earmarked for any use, despite three of them lying idle since 2005 or before.

Demand for school places - especially for primary schools in districts closer to the mainland border - had outstripped supply in recent years due to an influx of cross-border students, yet school premises continued to stand empty and falling into disrepair, said Lam.

About 80 per cent of the 234 schools rendered vacant in the past decade are primary schools.

Another 14 were not even registered in the system, the audit report said.

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Since 2006 the bureau has allocated 11 vacant school premises to international school operators.

A large number of the vacated schools received on average HK$19 million per school for improvement works between 1994 and 2007.

Twenty-six of them vacated their premises less than five years after renovation, primarily due to a drop in student enrolment.

The report recommended that the bureau review its mechanism for tracking and reviewing vacated schools.

The bureau is supposed to maintain a record of all empty schools. It was also recommended to utilise the vacant ones as soon as possible.

The report further recommended that the bureau review how it allocated funds for school improvement work.

"We agree that there is room for improvement with respect to the identification, allocation and management of vacant school premises under the Education Bureau's purview with a view to more effectively utilising the precious land resources," a bureau spokesman said yesterday, adding that the bureau was reviewing the mechanism and would liaise with the Lands Department to look into how such cases can be handled better.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung and Shirley Zhao