Stage 1 PE of the Yuen Long South Planning and Engineering Study for Housing Sites - Investigation (Jun 2013)
1. The need for Housing and therefore the need for Land Supply
First we should of course welcome an emphasis on the need to resolve current and projected housing need at all levels. This was a strong aspect of the CE’s Policy Address in January, and is necessary to make up for insufficient activity in housing provision over the past ten years.
But first we have to get to grips with the dimensions of the problem.
How much land do we need? Well we don’t know precisely, but there areseveral sides to this:
l The Long-term Housing Strategy Committee headed by Prof Anthony Cheung is currently conducting a comprehensive review of need and demand in line with population projections so we cannot be exact about need at present. We should not be putting the cart before the horse unless we have a clear strategic overall picture. In fact natural population growth is pretty static, but we have to cater for the projected needs of new immigrant families;
l Second, new land is required for other uses both to broaden our economic base and to provide government and institutional facilities in line with population catchments; and
l Third, there is a need to look at quality, certainly in terms of unit size, not just quantity.
2. Opportunities and Problems for Land Supply as a Whole
We need to look at where the realistic opportunities are for new land supply, and this is where things begin to be somewhat contentious.
We can either use existing land which means resumption, or we can createadditional land through reclamation. We can to a small extent explore rock caverns for certain types of use. Each of these options have problems of course – the D Bureau has been quoted as stating that “there are no constraint-free areas in Hong Kong any more”, but to a large extent this is because over the past 30 or 40 years we have not even tried to resolve some of theseconstraints and we have paid a high price for inactivity.
We know some of the problems – Reclamation around the coastline and estuaries of the NT will, to a lesser or greater extent, have environmental problems, perhaps access problems, and will certainly be costly.
So let us look at the existing land situation.
l 40 percent of our entire territory is given over to Country Parks – areas of protected country side that form our water catchments, but we need to preserve these in pristine condition for all manner of reasons; and
l Other areas too have environmental and ecological issues associated with them, including large parts of the Frontier Closed Area.
Most of these factors apply to the region, but there are several very significant issues as a whole. First the Northern New Territories has suffered from planning neglect for many years. The Town Planning Ordinance was only extended to the NT in 1991, but to all intents and purposes land use outsidedesignated town envelopes and country parks has been poorly co-ordinated – a combination of piecemeal development and relatively uncontrolled abuse of agricultural land.
It is not helped of course by the Small House Policy that is massively wasteful of land resources. This is a difficult and sensitive issue, but it really requires a review as almost 1000 hectares of rural land is still earmarked for this purpose– about 5 times the size of the proposed Yuen Long South Area.
Second, what was rural agricultural land has gradually given way to an amalgam of uses from open storage areas, car-repair shops etc which are both despoiling and wasteful although it might be argued that they serve an economic need. However these are issues that need to be addressed at thesame time as investigating the potential for new housing areas.
Third, we have very large land banks assembled by developers that amount to millions of square metres, but in very disparate locations. These have in recent years represented an intractable problem which on one hand has limited the supply of land to boost housing development while on the other has often led to development where it is least desired, for example in close vicinity to our precious Wetlands. We need to resolve this anomaly at the same time as investigating the potential for new housing areas. To do this we need proper strategic planning.
Need for an Overall Strategy
We already have proposals for three New Development Areas (NDAs) in theNorthern NT – Kwu Tung North, Fanling North and Ping Che / Ta Kwu Ling. This was the result of a Study carried out in 2008. But all in all theseproposed development areas will not accommodate much more than 150,000 people, and we are supposedly trying to accommodate around 1.3 million over the next 30 years.
Now clearly there are not only problems to be overcome, but land resumption alone would cost tens of billions of dollars, and this is before we get to all theassociated engineering requirements, and infrastructure.
We strongly suggest that we are in need of a firm strategic overview that examines both opportunities and constraints in a holistic rather than a piecemeal way.
The Case of Yuen Long South
Government terms Yuen Long South as a ‘Potential (rather than ‘New’) Development Area. Around 80 percent of existing land holdings in Yuen Long South are in private hands, so under current resumption procedures this is likely to be an expensive process. In addition it is likely that this will provide housing for only around 5,000 people.
Clearly there are constraints and opportunities to be acknowledged, and by and large a coherent extension to an existing conurbation is generally preferable and more cost-effective than developing a completely virgin site, with its attendant servicing and environmental issues.
A City Betterment Objective
Overall we need to look not just at overcoming problems but where the opportunities lie in creating an improved overall SAR environment.
There is a strong opportunity to rationalise development and land use within the Northern New Territories in order to achieve more coherent and ordered development, and this should be a cornerstone of development policy. It has been almost 6 years now since the completion of the HK2030 Study in 2007. A review on the broad directions should be commenced and the potential of each sub-region in the NT should be evaluated in the light of new and moreimminent demands and aspirations in order to establish an overall framework that can guide and steer new development.
There is certainly going to be opposition from a multitude of parties becausewhatever the process there are going to be difficulties. But if we are going to go through this process, then let’s adopt an overall “Betterment” objective not just look on it as purely a housing issue.
l Let us come up with an incentive approach to developers, through inducing land exchange but with restrictions on development outside agreed new development zones in order to diminish the prospect of isolated and disparate developments;
l Let us put aside obviously unrealistic and less than viable alternatives such as artificial islands, and inaccessible off-shore island developments, together with unnecessary initiatives such as re-examining Moratorium Areas, or changing the use of G/IC sites to Housing;
l Lets resolve the Small Housing Policy once and for all;
l Lets attempt to increase density as far as possible in well-planned new communities, rather than covering as much land as possible;
l Lets plan to get rid of despoiling uses in the long-term, but provide zones within New Development Areas for industrial investment, and storage if necessary;
l Lets try to evolve and superimpose not just a cosmetic landscape on thenorthern New Territories, but an active one – for recreation, and with land put aside for agricultural use – there would be many who would take up this challenge; and
l Lets try to contain village development within well-serviced villageenvelopes.
What we are in danger of doing, or seeming to be doing in terms of public perception, is to frantically follow every possible road without reference to either the road map or the culs-de-sac that can easily take us down the wrong path. We should NOT be constantly requested to pass comments on individual investigations without recourse to either a strategy or the ‘bigger picture’. This also applies to the city itself where we need to be thinking about betterment of the city’s public realm, not chasing up opportunities to maximise development intensity on every potentially available site, and indiscriminatingly changing the use of G/IC sites to Housing or changing theground rules that should apply to Moratorium Areas.
Public Affairs Committee
The Hong Kong Institute of Planners