Our living environment seems to be under attack from politicians around the world. In mid-April, American senators voted on an amendment to the country’s next budget, SA838, which supported individual states taking control of federal land. One of the few outlets to even mention it was outdoorsy Gearjunkie, which quoted Senator Lisa Murkowski as stating, “When we have an opportunity to consider … comprehensive approaches to land policies to facilitate economic development, empower States and improve our conservation systems.”
The amendment isn’t legally binding and it has been pointed out it refers to land not within national parks, but it has been regarded as the beginning of the end. It’s old news here in Hong Kong.
Chief Executive CY Leung’s January Policy Address, Section 72, stated that, “A substantial amount of land was zoned for non-development uses such as country parks to improve the environment. We also lowered the development intensity of land newly planned for development. These are causes of the serious shortage of housing supply that we have been facing in recent years.” The comments could be interpreted as seeing the parks as wasted space, and the idea of developing them for housing has been raised before. This time around the reaction has been slightly louder; critics are worried.
“I don’t know that he said they were wasted space, quite like that. But it’s outrageous really,” begins prominent activist and agitator Dr Martin Williams. Williams operates the Hong Kong Outdoors website and is active with the Save Our Country Parks Alliance. “The parks are one of the great gems of Hong Kong and it’s something the government has been proud of, telling us that nowhere else has as much land dedicated as country park. It’s just ridiculous in my view.”
As with any politicking, it’s possible the government is floating the idea in the public sphere as a way to gauge public reaction without a commitment. It can also indicate the best way to react.
But there is an argument that using what amounts to a tiny slice of the parks won’t adversely affect the environment. “Urban land is almost used up, hence a new source of land supply must be identified. Country parks comprise about one half of the area of Hong Kong, and so in the long-term developing country park areas is inevitable. Housing needs in the coming 10 years can be accommodated in only 2 to 3 percent of the country park area,” theorises Charles Chan, managing director of valuation and professional services at Savills. “Loss of such a small portion of the country park areas won’t have any impact on the level of enjoyment of citizens who love country parks. It defies common sense not to develop country parks while seeing people at large living in congested and dangerous sub-divided flats. Many country parks are located close to urban areas (such as Pok Fu Lam Country Park) and development of part of them won’t require substantial infrastructure investment.”
Of course, this could have been avoided with better land management to begin with. Writing in the SCMP, Simon Ng, chief research officer with Civic Exchange, wrote “The root causes of Hong Kong’s current housing pressures are more likely associated with the past administration’s decision to suspend and slow down the supply of subsidised and public rental housing, as well as to end regular land sales in favour of a land application list system, which effectively gave developers control of land supply.” Low interest rates haven’t helped, and have fuelled the demand for investment properties as Ng saw it. “It has little to do with country parks that were zoned and created decades ago.” Williams agrees. “How many empty apartments are there, and how many have been bought up by speculators?”
Williams disagrees with the assessment that there is no land left to use. Brownfield sites, industrial lands and former agricultural land are all valid and viable options that are also located in more efficient districts than something like Tin Shui Wai — once considered an answer to low cost housing. Williams calls that, and Yat Tung Estate, a failure. The Urban Renewal Authority needs more power and creativity needs to be encouraged. “There is land. There’s not just the imagination for hard work and really wanting to solve problems,” says Williams. The alternatives, he says, are, “More problematic. It’s just easier to reclaim land or go into the parks because it will be a politically simpler process. There are no obdurate villagers. It’s the lazy approach.”
But will it help? “It will definitely ease the shortage of homes for the low to middle classes. Whether the homes to be built on country parks are luxury homes depends on government policy,” states Chan. “The government can restrict development of country park areas to high density housing estates dominated by small units. Moreover, [it] can also build subsidised rental housing and home ownership scheme [properties].”
To many that seems unlikely. A park-facing flat at any size would likely sit at the upper end of the market and simply create more luxury housing, once again leaving average Hongkongers on the outside looking in. “It’s not about people with housing needs. It’s about building stuff to make profit,” warns Williams. “CY Leung comes from a property background, his friends are there, we have a strong business and property interest in Hong Kong and no proper democracy. We’re powered by vested interests … It’s not about solving the housing problem. It’s a big fake and it’s cowardly.”
Speculation will remain a problem, but ultimately, the fight lies with the SAR’s “sociopathic disinterest in the environment and fixation on money.” Ng worried that weighing the value of the parks against the need for housing would be distorted in favour of development. But awareness of the delicacy of the overall ecosystem is on the rise. Barely a day goes by when Hong Kong’s competitiveness hasn’t been negatively assessed when compared to other global cities that value their natural environments. “People are a bit laid back about these issues,” admits Williams. “But I think now things have gone a lot more towards really wanting a quality of life. Across Hong Kong that’s been a big change, but getting people to move and do something about it is harder.”