Practical and radical suggestions to unlock land

March 08, 2017 15:57
A fairyland can give way to a pressing housing reality. If Disneyland were demolished, it could unlock millions of square meters of space enough to house 300,000 people. Photo: Bloomberg

While the Leung Chun-ying administration keeps reiterating that land and home production is high on the government’s agenda, it has failed to stop Hong Kong’s housing woes from becoming intractable.

Officials have been somehow hysterical in looking for space and won’t release the tiniest plot on which to build public housing.

One such plot is a one-hectare property in Sha Tin currently leased for scarcely a year to local non-profit sports club Kitchee Academy.

The government wants to demolish the only soccer pitch there for a housing estate.

In the meantime, the government has been leasing a 170-hectare parcel in Fanling, an 18-hole golf course, to the Hong Kong Golf Club at an abhorrent rent of HK$1,000 a year.

The prime site, larger than the Happy Valley Racecourse and Victoria Park combined, sits next door to Sheung Shui MTR station and is thus ripe for immediate development.

A 170-hectare course should stay so that the city’s movers and shakers can putt and swing to their hearts’ content but a one-hectare soccer pitch that is for the hoi polloi must go. That is their logic.

Swap farmland for chunks of country parks

Don’t expect the government to have the guts to face up to powerful vested interests but we hope our well-paid officials can think out of the box to help the rank-and-file live in a little more decent condition.

Rather than tapping the numerous prime sites hiding in plain sight, the Leung administration has been itching to partition Hong Kong’s vast country parks.

Bulldozers may soon be at work in some country parks after Leung proposed allocating a small portion of land with low ecological value on the periphery of the green space for housing.

While prodding the government to battle interest groups for fairer use of land, we don't think that country parks must be spared. We need to examine whether it's reasonable to have only 7 percent of Hong Kong’s total land mass for housing while 40 percent is frozen from development.

Specific sites are yet to be identified, but there have been concerns that remote locations and the lack of transport and community facilities may render such public rental estates unattractive.

Perhaps the government should take heed of some fresh thinking like a “land swap” approach from local think tank SD Advocates -- rezone agricultural land for housing and relocate farms and fish ponds to the new plots to be created from country parks.

Data from the Food and Health Bureau show that 3,794 hectares or 85 percent of 4,523 hectares of agricultural land was fallow or derelict as of 2013.

The Planning Department also noted in a recent report that most of these vacant farmlands lie on urban fringes or scattered around new towns such as Sheung Shui, Fanling, Yuen Long, Tai Po, Tin Shui Wai and Tsuen Wan, giving future developments easy access to existing infrastructure.

Hong Kong’s agriculture sector is insignificant in economic terms. In 2014, annual output was about HK$830 million and the number of workers engaged in farming was 3,900. It won’t be a hard bullet to bite to acquire farmland for housing and compensate farmers with alternative sites inside country parks.

Vacate Disneyland for new homes

Another proposal, although it may sound nonsensical to some people, is worth debating -- how about asking Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to leave, so Hong Kong Disneyland can be redeveloped into a massive residential community?

The Hong Kong resort’s lackluster financial performance since inauguration 12 years ago has prompted some observers to call for a breakup with Disney once and for all.

More than HK$20 billion of public funds have gone down the drain. The park lifted itself out of the red only three times in more than a decade, with its diminishing allure to local and foreign tourists.

Flat terrain, an open landscape and a well served MTR route through the Sunny Bay station all make the Disneyland site an attractive location, not to mention the 280-hectare land that is ready for immediate use.

The Shadow Long-Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a pressure group on planning and land use, estimates that the waterfront plot can provide space for six million square meters of homes for up to 300,000 residents.

That is equivalent to the total population of Tai Po or the number of Hongkongers on the public housing waiting list, who endure on average four years and eight months in the queue for a tiny rental unit.

When cramped living conditions and housing shortages have become a disgrace, the government can’t afford to have a vast yet not-so-magical fairyland that comes in stark contrast with the harsh reality.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Read more:

Vast land supply hiding in plain sight, so where’s the problem?

Who should we blame for our small living spaces?

Public housing for 60% of HK people: a noble, viable goal

The government has said the 170-hectare Fanling golf course won't be rezoned for housing anytime soon but a small soccer pitch in Sha Tin is likely to be demolished. Photo: Internet
A woman walks past a green patch in the New Territories. Hong Kong's agricultural sector employs about 4,500 people. Photo: AFP
Rather than chipping away at country parks, new homes can be built on derelict farmland, especially in northern New Territories. Photo: Google Maps
The Hong Kong Disneyland Resort as seen from above. Large undeveloped chunks of land can be seen on both sides of the resort. Photo: Google Maps

EJ Insight writer