Urban planning

Former government town planner eyes Hong Kong’s last frontier and says development is crucial to city’s economic future

  • Phyllis Li urges government to fast track building plans in New Territories North to satisfy need of technology companies
  • But critics remain unconvinced and want to know how much demand there is from innovation sector
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 9:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 5:29pm

It is time the government fast tracked plans to develop Hong Kong’s last frontier in the New Territories, a former planning official in charge of the study urged, arguing the border area was crucial to the city’s economic development as a future technology and logistics hub.

But critics said before the plan could take off, the government had to be more forthcoming with the demand for innovation and technology (I&T) industries, and set out a regular forecast of the supply of such land.

“It’s about time the government started the next step for a planning and engineering feasibility study for New Territories North. It needs to be taken forward when our land supply problem is in such a critical state,” Phyllis Li Chi-miu, former deputy director of planning, said in an interview with the Post.

Li’s development project was included in the Task Force on Land Supply’s final report as one of the recommended options, among others such as reclamation, to solve the city’s land shortage.

It called on the government to advance planning for the project as it would be a “major source of housing supply in the medium-to-long term”.

The new town, “New Territories North”, was introduced in a government-commissioned study last year, covering three potential development areas near the border with Shenzhen. The sites, spanning 720 hectares, could house up to 350,000 people, and create 215,000 jobs.

The area would also include tracts of land reserved for logistics hubs as well as I&T companies.

Citing the study, Li said the new town project came with three key features, including driving the city’s long-term economic development, fostering a better integration between urban, rural, and natural areas, and promoting a low-carbon environment with smart city technology.

While housing has been a top priority, Li pointed out that economic land use was an important consideration for the project, given its strategic location near Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta.

“It’s not just about housing, and it’s much more than building a land reserve,” said Li, who retired last year.

Land supply task force cites public support for reclamation plans

“We talk about re-industrialisation, and wanting to broaden Hong Kong’s economy, and champion the IT industry, but all of these high value-added manufacturing and new tech industries need land,” she said.

Under the preliminary plans, a science park or industrial estate, spanning 56 hectares, could be set up near the Liantang-Heung Yuen Wai boundary control point set to open this year.

Planners also allocated 13 hectares for an enterprise park for incubators and social enterprises, as well as 24 hectares for existing logistics operators and modern logistics development.

Li said it would help form an “Eastern Knowledge and Technology Corridor” – a “tech ecosystem” stretching from the border covering the tech hub, six universities, down to data centres in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate.

She also said she hoped the employment opportunities could help reduce long-distance commuting, and alleviate congested traffic.

According to government data, almost half of Hong Kong’s population – 3.47 million people – live in new towns, while 76 per cent of the jobs are located in urban areas.

The shortfall of economic land uses accounted for 21 per cent of a total of 1,200 hectares the city lacks in the next three decades, the government’s planning blueprint in 2016 showed.

By 2023, there would be an estimated shortfall of 84.6 hectares for special industries – data centres, modern logistics and research and development.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Science Park said it fully supported the initiative, as it would create a conducive environment for cross-border collaboration, especially as I&T development would be at the forefront of Beijing’s plans for the “Greater Bay Area”. The bay area scheme aims to link Hong Kong, Macau and nine other regional mainland cities into an economic and innovation powerhouse.

However, critics said authorities had not made clear the land supply and demand for such industries.

Chan Kim-ching, founder of Liber Research Community, questioned why there was such a large area reserved.

Including other planned developments in the New Territories, such as the Lok Ma Chau Loop, there would be more than 200 hectares allotted for innovation and technology development, Chan said.

He said that amounted to almost the same as the housing shortage for the next three decades.

“The government has not given any justification of the demand for innovation and technology, or said how such land would be developed, and by whom,” Chan said.

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok said the sector required space, citing large data centres needed to fuel the rapid growth in cloud services and e-commerce.

He urged the government to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, which regularly issues a five-year and 10-year forecast of how much land supply would be available for the industry.

“The biggest problem for companies is even if they are able to bid on one piece of land in Hong Kong, they don’t know when and if other plots will be available,” Mok said.