Links between owners of wetland sites and big Hong Kong developers spark concerns over proposed ‘land sharing’ scheme

  • Some 398 hectares of wetlands are owned by companies with connections to the four biggest developers, a study by a land concern group found
PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 2:24pm

Hong Kong’s four biggest developers were found to have links with owners of more than half of privately held farmland located in ecologically sensitive wetland areas, sparking conservation concerns over a government proposal to co-develop agricultural sites with landlords.

According to a study by land concern group Liber Research Community, at least 700 hectares of wetlands in the northwest New Territories were in private hands, of which 398 hectares were owned by companies with connections to the four developers.

The farmland held by firms linked to developers comprised 15 per cent of the city’s dedicated wetland conservation and buffer areas – fish ponds connected to the internationally recognised Mai Po marshes, which support large numbers of migratory birds and a diverse ecosystem.

Green groups fear a government plan to co-develop private farmland with its owners could override planning safeguards and damage the wetlands.

But the government said planning restrictions would remain and developments that involved sensitive wetlands could find it difficult to get the green light.

“The study shows that the government has … underestimated the conflict between conservation and vested interests [involved in the proposal],” said Chan Kim-ching, founder of Liber Research, which sifted through company and land records for the study.

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It began the study in June, amid public debate over how to source more land to solve the city’s housing problems.

Among measures Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proposed in her policy address in October was a “land sharing” scheme where the government would agree to raise the development density of developers’ agricultural lots, in exchange for a share of the extra density to build subsidised housing.

Liber Research’s study found that 147 wetland sites were owned by firms whose directors were also directors of the four major developers – Henderson Land Development, Sun Hung Kai Properties, New World Development and CK Asset – or their subsidiaries.

Firms with links to three of the four – New World, Henderson and Sun Hung Kai – were found to have been involved in unauthorised developments at 41 sites, which covered a total area of 145 hectares. Unauthorised activities may involve only part of each site.

Of 85 sites whose landlords were linked to New World, about a quarter involved unauthorised activities.

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For example, almost half of a 27-hectare site in Pok Wai, Yuen Long was involved in 21 unauthorised activities between 1995 and this year, including running open storage and a car park, dumping and filling in fish ponds.

All were rectified after government intervention.

The firms also filed four residential development applications for the sites, with all rejected.

A New World spokeswoman said its agricultural sites covered in the study were leased out to tenants, who were required by the company to “adhere strictly to the lawful terms of land use”.

She said the company would not breach the law or permit tenants to use land unlawfully, and would monitor their activities.

The company had not studied possible involvement in the land sharing scheme due to a lack of details, she added.

Sun Hung Kai was found to have links to landlords of 44 sites, with 12 involved in unauthorised activities. A group spokeswoman said the majority were not owned by the group.

For those owned by the company, “only a few” were involved in unauthorised activities, some of which existed before the group bought the sites, she said. All the issues were rectified, she added.

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She said the company had no comment on the land sharing scheme also due to a lack of details.

Henderson was linked to owners of 19 sites, of which eight were found to have been involved in unauthorised activities. CK Asset was found to own one site, with no unauthorised activities.

Henderson and CK did not respond to a request for comment.

A Development Bureau spokeswoman said the government had no intention of changing planning restrictions at wetlands.

“In fact, we believe development plans involving such areas are relatively difficult to meet the [scheme’s] requirement of increasing housing supply in the short to medium term,” she said.

Development applications in the conservation area are almost always rejected. Lots in the buffer area are more likely to be considered for low-density projects, especially on sites zoned for comprehensive development with wetland restoration or enhancement.

But Peter Li Siu-man, of the Conservancy Association, said the board tended to relax standards if development applications were backed by government policies. For example, he said, after the last administration introduced a policy to use green belts for housing, many more such applications were approved to develop vegetated buffer areas between urban developments.

“I do not believe the board will hold up its standards this time,” Li said.