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How can we live and work happily without sufficient land supply?

With the Ferris wheel at the Central waterfront already turning and the preparations for the adjacent winter carnival proceeding at full throttle, 2014 will soon come to a close. The Development Bureau has been pulling out all the stops to increase land supply as much as possible to address the Hong Kong public’s housing needs and the needs of social and economic development. One might argue that with a total area of 1 100 square kilometres, Hong Kong is larger than some other Asian countries or cities such as Singapore, Taipei and Seoul. However, land development in Hong Kong is constrained by our hilly terrain: only a quarter of our land is developed, which means the 7 million or so Hong Kong citizens are residing, working and living in this area of just some 200 sq km. In terms of the average space per capita on developed land, Hong Kong is certainly one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Given the constraints of terrain, Hong Kong has always been adopting an approach of compact, high-density and mixed-use development to make the best use of our land. As developable land is scarce, our living space per capita is small and the living conditions are crowded. Looking around the world, there are indeed cities that are densely developed like Hong Kong, such as Singapore, Shanghai, New York and London. However, why do most of their residents enjoy more living space than us? The fact is that the total residential land area of these cities is much larger than that of Hong Kong. Among these cities, while the total land areas of Singapore (714 sq km) and New York (789 sq km) are smaller than that of Hong Kong, their respective residential land areas are 100 sq km and 266 sq km, and their populations are about 5.3 million (in 2013) and 8.1 million (in 2010), respectively. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has only 76 sq km of residential land area to accommodate about 7 million people. As for London, although its population is similar to that of New York, it has a total land area of 1 596 sq km, with 520 sq km of which being residential land. As such, the conclusion will be somewhat unfair if we simply compare the living space per capita of Hong Kong to the levels in other cities.

If we want to have more living space, there must be more large sites for the planning and construction of housing. The aforementioned cities offer us much food for thought in terms of urban development. Let’s take Singapore as an example: while it has the smallest area among the aforementioned cities, over the past 30 years it has increased its land area from 523 sq km to 714 sq km through large-scale reclamation. Reclaimed land now accounts for over 25 per cent of the country’s total land area, compared to just some 6 per cent in Hong Kong. To cope with population growth and the needs of economic development, Singapore is also enhancing its land efficiency through replanning, redevelopment of old districts, and developing underground space and rock caverns for public facilities and industrial and commercial uses.

As for New York and London, these two international financial centres and cultural metropolises are not subject to boundary constraints like us. They can keep expanding outward, as long as transport planning, land development and infrastructure are comprehensively and properly planned.

How about Hong Kong? We have neither the space for outward expansion like that of New York, London or Shanghai, nor can we carry out large-scale reclamation like Singapore does. Does it mean that we cannot improve our living environment? Of course not - but we must acknowledge the problem and take action together. Currently, the Government is forging ahead with a number of major land development plans to address the land supply shortage through a multi-pronged approach, and to build up a land reserve for timely disposal whenever needs arise in future. As for medium- to long-term planning, we have plans to expand existing new towns like Tung Chung; take forward new development areas such as Kwu Tung North, Fanling North and Hung Shui Kiu; develop brownfield sites in other rural areas in the New Territories (such as Yuen Long South); explore the development potential of New Territories North; and carry out long-term planning for Lantau development. Meanwhile, we are also studying the possibility of reclamation outside Victoria Harbour and optimising the use of rock caverns and underground space. These projects have progressed to different stages, but they all need support from you and the Legislative Council.

In the short to medium run, the Government has conducted reviews on sites of various uses and has plans to increase development intensity as appropriate, including rezoning 70 Green Belt (GB) sites of about 150 hectares in total area (which accounts for 1 per cent of all GB sites in Hong Kong) to provide about 89 000 residential units, of which more than 70 per cent would be public housing. We understand the community’s concerns over the rezoning of GB sites; we would not have touched these sites if there were other options, but we have no magic wand for land supply in the short run and this is one of the major sources of land supply. As I have reiterated many times in previous blog posts, we will do our best to minimise the impacts on the environment by requesting project proponents to preserve or relocate existing trees with conservation value, or replant new ones according to existing greening guidelines and tree conservation mechanisms.

As you might recall, in a blog post last year I quoted the views of some who questioned whether country parks were totally untouchable and ruled out for development despite the community’s pressing housing needs. The question caused a stir, and many might be suspicious of my motives in raising the country park issue here again. In fact, the point I want to make is that anything from GB sites, reclamation, new development areas and developing Lantau to any other suggestions or projects will alter the status quo and affect the local communities and residents, yet we cannot avoid these topics all the time and refrain from conducting studies at all. Otherwise, many members of the public will never be able to move into public housing and we will never be able to solve the housing problem because the core of the problem is the shortage of housing and land supply. To ensure sufficient and sustained land supply, the Hong Kong community as a whole has to face reality and make tough choices. We will continue to communicate with and explain to the community, affected parties and stakeholders so that we can work together to look for and develop land to let everyone live and work happily.


7 December, 2014