Most of us may have already forgotten Mak Chai-kwong who served a grand total of 12 days as Hong Kong development chief before he was struck down by a corruption scandal.
Mak was arrested and formally charged in 2012 after revelations he fraudulently claimed housing allowance for years while a civil servant.
But in his short tenure, he did what his predecessors hadn’t done or couldn’t do — disclose the extent of idle government land.
Mak told the Legislative Council that there were 2,153.7 hectares of land intended for housing but left undeveloped as of end-June 2012.
Since then, the government hasn’t made public similar land supply figures.
The Planning Department did give us an idea of the combined built-up area of residential sites in 2013 — 77 square kilometers (7,700 hectares).
Idle residential land owned by the government is more than one-fourth of the area that houses the entire population today.
So, what does the government mean when it says it doesn’t have enough land when confronted with Hong Kong’s persistent housing problem?
Of the 18 districts, Yuen Long has the largest chunk of idle public land with 490.9 hectares, followed by Sha Tin with 295 hectares and Sai Kung with 254.5 hectares.
Kowloon City, home to many dilapidated tenement blocks and subdivided flats, has 20.4 hectares of undeveloped residential land.
Non-governmental organization Liber Research Community said in a 2013 paper that the 2,153.7 hectares of idle government land can provide homes for almost two million people.
The figure was based on the government’s own projections in a land supply strategy consultation paper that 1,100 hectares can house one million residents.
Government officials argue that it takes time to prepare these sites for housing development, never mind that the Audit Commission has contradicted that rhetoric.
The watchdog cited two cases of government inaction or foot-dragging.
For instance, it took 10 years to complete Shui Chuen O Estate in Sha Tin thanks to red tape.
Block 22 of Tung Tau Estate in Shek Kip Mei is awaiting demolition three years after it was closed for redevelopment.
Also, don’t forget the 800 hectares of so-called “brownfield sites”, deserted or damaged agricultural and industrial land mainly in Yuen Long, Sheung Shui, Fanling and other parts of the New Territories that are suitable for immediate use.
Most of these sites are used as waste recycling yards, container yards and lorry parks, according to media reports.
In an op-ed in the Hong Kong Economic Journal earlier this year, Chan Siu-ming, a member of the shadow long-term housing strategy steering committee, criticized Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s plans to redevelop Kai Tak.
Chan said just 3 percent of the 320 hectares of available land in the former airport has been allocated to public housing — mainly Kai Ching Estate and Tak Long Estate.
That’s lower than that reserved for hotels and commercial complexes.
Meanwhile, the government has rejected proposals to rezone part of the land in a proposed sports hub for extra public housing.
The Leung administration’s strategy for brownfield sites has been called into question as well.
Chan said the government caved to the Heung Yee Kuk and other rural interests when it cut the size of a public housing estate in Yuen Long’s Wang Chau to 4,000 units from 17,000.
The government may be a stakeholder in these vested interests because they translate to election votes.
Some observers fear the government’s estimates of population growth, a key factor in land demand and housing supply, may have been grossly exaggerated.
Hence, they say its new town planning based on these estimates might create ghost towns, although it’s an unlikely scenario at this time.
The government’s 2001 population projections for 2011 was 7.5 million, 456,000 higher than the actual number that year.
The 2012 projection for mid-2039 was 8.9 million.
The number was revised down to 8.42 million after the implementation of a “zero delivery quota” policy for non-local mothers.
For perspective, the difference in these projections is equivalent to the population of Sha Tin.
Developers fear that since the new town development may span 10 years or more, such as those proposed for northeastern New Territories, they might end up having fewer residents than planned.
Their unsolicited advice to the government is to use idle plots to address foreseeable public housing needs more quickly rather than uprooting villagers and farmers to make way for new towns.
– Contact us at [email protected]