Over the years, any proposal to develop land and build houses in our country parks would almost without exception touch a nerve among local environmentalists and provoke backlash from not only the public but politicians as well.
As a result, it has become something of a taboo subject that the government would rather not touch on at all.
Not afraid of rattling cages, in his last policy address delivered in January this year, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying brought up the provocative idea again and pledged to look into it thoroughly in his remaining term.
And last week, less than two months before he leaves office, he fulfilled his pledge by announcing that he had commissioned the Hong Kong Housing Society to carry out a study on the feasibility of developing two land sites, each covering an area of about 20 hectares, on the fringes of the Tai Lam and Ma On Shan country parks for new homes.
Leung said he had discussed it with incoming Chief Executive Carrie Lam and stressed that the two land sites would only be designated to build public rental housing (PRH) flats or elderly housing.
In fact, Carrie Lam herself also vowed to explore the possibility of building PRH flats on the outskirts of our country parks of relatively low ecological value during her campaign.
Right after Leung had announced his plan, he immediately came under fire from pro-democracy lawmakers, who criticized him for violating standard procedure and bypassing the legislature by directly ordering the study without consulting the Legco panel on housing first.
To be fair, while the pan-democrats’ accusation might not be totally unfounded, we believe it is still premature to assert that the CE is deliberately avoiding Legco oversight in his attempt to build new homes on the fringes of our country parks.
Even if the study of the Housing Society eventually concludes that Leung’s plan is both viable and feasible, the administration will still have to get back to Legco for funding.
As such, there is in fact no way the government can bypass Legco on this matter at all, because sooner or later, it will have to seek its approval for money. So it is basically just a matter of taking the issue to Legco for discussion now or doing it later.
In our opinion, since it is only a preliminary study to look into the feasibility of building houses on the fringes of our country parks, and the final conclusion of the study may not necessarily be in the affirmative, we therefore believe it is worth doing.
There are undoubtedly concerns among the public and environmental groups that once projects to build new homes in our country parks are given the green light, it will open the floodgates to real estate developers, and soon noisy and smoky bulldozers as well as concrete mixer trucks will be roaring across our country parks.
Some members of the public believe any infrastructure or building project carried out within or near our country parks will inevitably lead to the irreversible erosion of our natural environment.
We agree that there is certainly justification for their worries, and in order to address their concerns, we urge the Housing Society to guarantee impartiality, thoroughness, transparency and receptiveness when carrying out its upcoming study.
In particular, it must facilitate consensus-building among the public over what is exactly meant by “being on the fringes of country parks” and “having low ecological value”, so as to avoid dispute and controversy over the choice of land sites in the future.
As a matter of fact, the acute land shortage and the resulting surge in home prices have taken a heavy toll on the harmony of our society and the quality of life of our fellow citizens. That said, the government must tackle the pressing issue of increasing land supply head-on as soon as possible, even if it might involve making tough and controversial decisions.
As our country parks currently account for 40 percent of the total area of Hong Kong, is it really true that there isn’t a single inch of land within them which we can tap into in order to build new homes for our expanding population? Isn’t it worth at least studying the idea?
We believe the key to resolving our housing woes is to strike a reasonable balance between environmental conservation and land development. As such, we agree that the government should explore all possible options about finding new land, and then put them up for public discussion and consultation, during which due process, transparency, openness and procedural justice must be observed.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 19
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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