Are there other options than sacrificing green belts for homes?

November 14, 2015 08:03
Activists in London warn that green belts are under threat amid a flurry of housing developments. Hong Kong may face the same challenge. Photos: Internet

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sparked a controversy earlier this week by calling for a study on land use to make way for the construction of affordable housing in country parks.

Even before that, Leung, in his policy address last year, set his sights on 80 green belts for possible conversion into residential land.

Both suggestions drew immediate and harsh criticism from environmental groups.

Interestingly, the “land problem”, a term Leung has used to explain high property prices, has its parallel in Britain's current housing crisis.

Both in Hong Kong and the UK, green belts and country parks have been placed in the center of debates about freeing more land to boost home supply.

This is no coincidence because laws and policies on designated use of green belts and country parks were introduced by the British colonial government.

We have no intention of discussing whether Hong Kong should be decolonized, as suggested by former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Chen Zouer, by discussing policies left behind by the former colonial ruler.

Rather, we think we can learn valuable lessons by studying how the UK handles issues that Hong Kong also faces.

Housing prices in Hong Kong and London are known for being awfully high.

Since Leung took office in July 2012, Hong Kong's housing prices have soared over 45 percent at the end of June 2015.

Meanwhile, London’s housing prices have risen around 40 percent since 2013.

The gap between escalating housing prices and affordability continues to widen.

The UK is also desperate for more land to build houses.

A UK scholar calculated that since the early 1980s, Britons have underbuilt homes by 1.6 million to 2.3 million units.

Weeks ago, British housing minister Brandon Lewis unveiled a plan to build one million homes by 2020. His announcement was met with doubts from the public.

The green-belt policy was introduced in the UK 60 years ago. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I introduced the concept in 1580.

The way the British government sees it, green belts prevent "urban sprawl" by keeping portions of land permanently open.

The law restricts constructions on green belts except for special uses such as buildings for agricultural uses and sanitation facilities. Culturally, green belts are seen representing the British self-image of a rural country.

Green belts are estimated to cover 1.64 million hectares, accounting for around 13 percent of the England's land area.

In Hong Kong, the Town Planning Ordinance empowers the Town Planning Board to stipulate the designated use of green belts, which is in accordance with the same principle in the UK, although the UK's is much more comprehensive.

Comparatively, the green belts in Hong Kong are fragmented and their total size is relatively small.

However, country parks account for 40 percent of land in Hong Kong, measuring about 44,300 hectares, while another 35 percent of the land in the city is used for residential purposes.

The Country Park Ordinance, enacted in 1976, provides a legal framework based on a British enactment designating a total of 24 country parks in Hong Kong.

Country parks have been designated for nature conservation, countryside recreation and outdoor education.

In the UK, green belts are much closer than the countryside to the city.

Defenders of the green belts, such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, warn that green belts are under threat amid a flurry of housing developments.

They insist that green belts, which they consider a British success story, are needed to protect the countryside and help in the regeneration of cities across England.

However, in the face of a looming housing shortage, several arguments have been put forward in favor of building on green belts:

1) Green belts have been protected regardless of its location and conservation value, but they include scrap yards and gravel pits.

2) Green belts are not fulfilling the original aim of providing recreation for city dwellers. Many city residents are hardly aware of their existence. Instead, green belts have become a form of "exclusionary zoning” for affluent residents who already live there and exclude anyone else who want a share of their idyllic environment.

3) Green belts can offer an efficient solution to the housing shortage and lower home prices considerably. It is estimated that a million homes can be built around London by making use of just 3.7 percent of the city's green belt.

4) Building on green belts can take advantage of the infrastructure near cities rather than building isolated towns in the countryside. Besides, the countryside has a greater ecological value that should be preserved.

Amid the competing interests of environmental protection and housing supply, Rowan Moore, an architecture critic for the Guardian, asserted that "it would be naïve to think that the country’s housing problems would be solved just by handing tracts of green belts to developers." 

He continued: "Something more is required, which is the ability to plan positively, to create new places as well as protect old ones, a skill this country had until relatively recently. It is not a small thing to rediscover this art, but then neither is the green belt, nor the current issues of housing.

"The green belt arouses strong passions, but the debates around it are about something still larger, which is the ability of a country to act together in a shared endeavour, or to subdivide into competing interests."

Back in Hong Kong, Leung said that "we have less land for development while we have country parks -- we can’t have both."

Should Hong Kong deal with the housing issues in the manner that Rowan Moore proposes?

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EJ Insight contributor