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Urban planning

Those commenting on planning applications in Hong Kong will now have to identify themselves – and critics are not happy about it

  • Concern group worries the new requirement will deter people from speaking up on controversial applications, reducing public scrutiny
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 9:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 9:10pm

Hong Kong’s planning authority on Monday issued revised guidelines requiring those who comment on town planning applications to provide the first four digits of their identity documents.

But some concern groups are worried the new requirement will deter the public from commenting on controversial planning applications, reducing the power of public scrutiny.

“It will create an environment where people cannot freely express their opinions,” said Charlton Cheung, a member of community-based group Sai Wan Concern.

Most town planning applications involve the government or private landowners seeking to change the use of sites for development, or change sites’ development parameters such as height and density.

Each application is open for public inspection for three weeks, during which anyone can comment. The Town Planning Board will decide whether to approve the application based on planning rules, public opinions and government feedback.

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Previously, commenters were not required to identify themselves or leave contact information.

Under the revised guidelines, commenters now need to provide their full names as shown on their Hong Kong identity cards or passports, as well as the first four digits of those documents. They are also required to leave contact details.

If a concern group is submitting comments en masse on behalf of members, its representative not only needs to provide identification and contact details, but also authorisation letters signed by those the group represents.

Previously, we didn’t even know whether those who made comments really existed
Lawrence Poon, Town Planning Board

Board member Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, a scholar of housing policy at City University, said the revision was to better verify the existence of commenters and to prevent one person from submitting multiple comments to back or oppose applications.

“Previously, we didn’t even know whether those who made comments really existed,” Poon said. “They could use whatever monikers they liked. There could also be 100 opinion letters submitted by the same person.”

Poon said the new requirement was “minimal” in terms of personal data and that he was not concerned about it deterring the public from making comments.

But Cheung said the required disclosure of identity documents was “over-verification” and “completely unnecessary”.

“The environment now is that everybody fears personal data leaks or identity thefts,” he said. “More often than not people don’t even want to leave their contact details.

“[The requirement] is not welcoming, and will deter people from expressing their opinions.”

Cheung said the requirement to leave contact details would be enough to verify people’s identity.

Separately, the board also agreed that the provision of transitional housing for no more than five years in permanent buildings would not require a change of land use, as long as such provision was coordinated by the Transport and Housing Bureau.

Permanent buildings include industrial buildings to be converted in full for commercial or residential purposes after the transitional period.

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The measure was introduced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her policy address in October to address the problem of tens of thousands of poor families being forced to live in inadequate housing while on the waiting list for low-rent public housing.

As of September, there were some 133,000 applicants on the list, with the average waiting time for families and non-elderly households reaching five years and five months.

The provision of transitional housing should be for inadequately housed families on the waiting list, and a special fixed-term waiver needs to be granted by the Lands Department.

If the proposed provision of transitional housing is not coordinated by the bureau, providers will still need the planning board’s approval for their applications.