We never build what we can’t afford, Hong Kong leader says amid criticism of 1,700 hectare artificial islands plan
Government sources have put the cost at HK$500 billion, but Carrie Lam unable to offer an official estimate for reclamation project to house up to 1.1 million people
Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday insisted the city was not committing to unaffordable infrastructure projects amid criticism of her proposal to create artificial islands to house up to 1.1 million people.
But Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor refused to offer a cost estimate for the 1,700 hectares of new land east of Lantau Island, citing a lack of detailed studies or designs.
Government sources last week suggested a figure of HK$500 billion (US$63.8 billion).
Lam’s assurances came after thousands of demonstrators took to the streets at the weekend in protest over the project.
“There is no point in giving a figure today,” Lam said on Tuesday before her weekly meeting with advisers from the Executive Council. “There is still much room to explore in terms of reclamation methods, so it is hard to provide a budget or ceiling.
“I worked at the Treasury for seven years, and spent one or two years auditing expenditure on infrastructure. We will not – when we cannot afford it – commit to construction projects.”
Lam said the government was spending HK$100 billion a year on infrastructure. Among the biggest has been the long-delayed and over-budget HK$88.4 billion Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which opened last month.
Another multibillion-dollar project, the 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, is set to open later this year.
The city’s fiscal reserves are forecast to stand at HK$1.14 trillion by the end of March next year.
Lam said it was too early to say how the government would secure the funds needed for the Lantau reclamation project.
Finance minister Paul Chan Mo-po last Sunday said the government would consider “creative” ways to fund the islands, such as by issuing bonds.
Lam on Tuesday refused to comment on the turnout for the protest held last Sunday against the reclamation proposal, at which police estimated up to 5,800 people attended.
Hongkongers were entitled to express their opinions on the issue, she said, but some views were “biased”.
There would be further opportunities for officials to listen to the public’s views, including those of environmentalists, when the proposal went through the government’s Town Planning Board and the legislature, Lam added.
On suggestions the project would take too long, Lam conceded up to three decades was the timescale.
“We should not refrain from starting the project because it will be a long process,” the chief executive said.
However, Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan claimed Lam was “contradicting herself”.
“If you haven’t done the maths, how do you know if it is affordable?” Chan asked.
The lawmaker added that Lam had not yet explained an expansion in the scale of the project from 1,000 to 1,700 hectares.
Last year a task force was appointed by the government to study options for freeing up land in Hong Kong. It has been conducting a public consultation exercise in which reclamation of 1,000 hectares off Lantau was one of 18 options. There was no mention of 1,700 hectares.
“The difference in cost could be very large,” Chan said.
Council Front legislator Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said Lam was “trying to look less aggressive” on the scale of the plan.
“What new research has been done to justify the expansion from 1,000 to 1,700 hectares?” Chu asked.
“What if the task force [shows the public] places a low priority on these artificial islands?”
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said his organisation was likely to vote against funding applications for the project.
Members would meet on Sunday to discuss Lam’s proposal and formulate a more detailed stance on the issue, he said.
“Reclamation may be partially acceptable as a land source,” Wu said. “Party members do not want to give rise to a ‘creed-like’ mentality against it.”
Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said on an RTHK programme on Tuesday that some of the criticism aimed at the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision”, as the reclamation plan has been termed, was “one-sided and untruthful”. He said it would not exhaust fiscal reserves.
Some accusations even amounted to “conspiracy theories”, Chan added.
“I do not appreciate such attitudes,” he said. “The spectrum of opinion is very wide. Many citizens are not strongly opposed.”
Lam asserted the aim of the Lantau proposal was to provide housing, and there was no hidden agenda.
“There’s absolutely no conspiracy,” she said. “We want to do good things for the people of Hong Kong.”