Hong Kong’s rural powerhouse the Heung Yee Kuk is up in arms over a proposal by a fellow pro-establishment group to invoke a draconian law to forcibly take back land from private owners for public housing. The kuk, a government-recognised body representing the interest of indigenous villagers in the New Territories and widely regarded as a key force in the pro-Beijing camp, slammed the suggestion on Tuesday, saying it went against the spirit of the Basic Law on respecting private property ownership rights. It warned it would block all government projects in the New Territories if such a proposal was adopted. Kuk chairman Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, a legislator who also sits in the Hong Kong leader’s cabinet, suggested developing green belt land and country parks. “The government only has itself to blame for the land shortage problem. It is due to its bad planning and red tape. We have a lot of country parks and abandoned rural areas. But the land there is not used,” Lau said. Hong Kong consistently has the world’s least affordable housing market. Public debate on taking back New Territories sites arose after the city’s largest pro-Beijing party – the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) – called on the government to invoke the Lands Resumption Ordinance more often to boost land supply for public housing. Combination of land resumption, protests, to adversely affect developers Under the law, a landlord must surrender a site if it is wanted for a public purpose, such as housing or developing a new town. Once the government eyes a site, there will be consultation with relevant district councils before the land is taken back and cleared. Affected landowners are paid compensation. Currently, the rate for the best grade farmland – within planned new towns or affected by major projects of “territory-wide significance” – is up to HK$1,348 (US$172) a square foot. But for lower grade sites – those in remote areas – it could be below HK$400 a square foot. At a kuk meeting on Tuesday, rural leaders said villagers would have been happy to allow the government to take their land but for the inadequate compensation. “Rural villagers have no responsibility to help the government solve the housing shortage. Villagers also face a land shortage. Why does the government not take back more land for us to build small houses?” said Kingsley Sit Ho-yin, director of the body’s think tank, the Heung Yee Kuk Research Centre. Beijing heaps pressure on Hong Kong developers ‘hoarding land for profit’ Sit was referring to the 1972 policy that allows male indigenous villagers to each build a three-storey villa. The kuk claimed the lack of land had made a mockery of the seemingly generous policy. Sit also dismissed the DAB’s proposal as “nonsense”, saying: “They came up with a socialist proposal to woo voters ahead of the [district council] elections [in November]. Did they respect the landlords’ interests? The spirit of the Basic Law is that Hong Kong is to adopt a capitalistic system and it is to respect the right to private ownership of property.” Ching Chan-ming, chairman of the Shap Pat Heung rural committee, said: “The Heung Yee Kuk is the right body for the government to consult when it comes to such a change in land strategy, not the DAB.” Kam Tin rural committee chairman Tang Ho-nin also threatened that the kuk should block government projects in the New Territories if villagers’ voices were not heeded. DAB legislator Edward Lau Kwok-fan said they appreciated the kuk’s concerns. “To solve the shortage, the government must have steady land supply, otherwise everything will be only empty talk,” Lau said, adding that using the land resumption law was the most effective way. Arguing against increased use of the resumption law, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last year said it might lead to more judicial reviews against the government. From 1997 to 2017, the government used the ordinance 154 times, including 13 times for building public housing. There were eight judicial reviews but none was successful. In last year’s policy address, the government committed to allocating 70 per cent of flats on its newly developed land for public housing. As at the first half of the year, there were about 260,000 applicants on the public housing waiting list. The average waiting time was 5.4 years, up from 2.7 years in 2012.