Balance and trade-offs
Over the past few years, we have been glad to see that the discussion on housing and land issues in the community has been flourishing. The Government adopts a multi-pronged strategy on land supply to strike a balance among various considerations and aspirations. However, some commentators adopt an either/or attitude, or make sweeping statements on the issues, and their arguments do not help to explore pragmatic solutions to the problems. For instance, there is a view that the current problem is not a shortage of land supply but unfair distribution. Selective and out-of-context data on areas allocated for public and private housing are cited to allege that the Government only allocated a small amount of land for public housing development, and to question why specific private residential sites were used for building “luxurious flats” instead of for public housing.
I regret very much that there is such disregard for facts, and that there are such biased allegations. First, these statements are not based on facts. The Government is committed to providing 480,000 housing units for the coming 10 years in accordance with the recommendations of the Long Term Housing Strategy, and the public-private housing ratio will be maintained at 60 to 40. Among the some 150 sites for rezoning to residential use in the short- to medium term, which are capable of providing over 210,000 housing units (with over 70 per cent for public housing), are some 70 Green Belt (GB) sites, which are estimated to have a total area of about 150 hectares (only about 1 per cent of the GB sites in the Territory), and are capable of providing more than 80,000 housing units, more than 70 per cent of which will be for public housing. In addition, in all new development areas and new town extension areas, public housing will account for 50 to 60 per cent. Sites rezoned for residential use in the Tai Po Outline Zoning Plan, which is subject to judicial reviews, will provide about 9,400 housing units, out of which 6,500 (almost 70 per cent) are for public housing.
Second, in our town planning, apart from zoning land for residential use, we need to provide land for ancillary facilities, the road network and infrastructure, and community facilities for the residents. The capacities of these facilities, the road network and infrastructure will also need to be taken into consideration in determining the optimal development intensity of the housing site. Sites of a relatively larger size, adjacent to transport infrastructure with sufficient provision of ancillary facilities, and are considered suitable for high-density development, are usually more appropriate for public housing development. For example, the number of sites already rezoned near Heng On Estate in Ma On Shan, the two sites in Sam Choi area in Kwun Tong, the public housing site in phase one of Wang Chau development, Yuen Long, and the proposed sites in Ka Wai Man Road in Kennedy Town, are conveniently located with access to public transport, thus suiting the needs of public housing residents. So, is it fair to accuse the Government of building luxurious flats when we earmark sites in more remote and less accessible areas for low-density private housing development? If we allocate all housing sites for public housing, disregarding the surrounding environment, infrastructure and facilities, will it be good for those future residents living there? And would it be fair to those who are not eligible to apply for public housing?
Furthermore, these arguments ignore or evade the objective fact that land development and supply have been stagnating over the past 10 years despite a growing population, resulting in the acute shortage of land nowadays. Facing a tight land and housing supply situation, we have to address the issue and explore ways to increase the supply, instead of shifting attention to the interests of one group against another or igniting a fierce debate, which will not help solve the problem, but only create more conflicts. Moreover, reducing the proportion of private housing without increasing overall production will only aggravate the private housing supply problem, and may lead to a surge in property prices or rents, creating a greater burden for people to bear. Ultimately, the supply of public and private housing should not be a "zero-sum game”, while increasing supply is the fundamental way to solve the housing problems in Hong Kong.
Recently, the issue of developing country parks has been revisited in the community. As I have said before, the current-term Government has no plan to develop country parks. However, it is worth pondering on the discussion and dilemma the community is facing. For example, some opposing environmentalists and commentators have argued that since a lot of land had not been optimally utilised, the Government should first make optimal use of such “idle land” in the vicinity of the existing infrastructure, urban areas or new towns, or “brownfields sites” in the rural areas of the New Territories. In fact, we have adopted a multi-pronged strategy to increase land supply and have been working hard in this aspect in recent years, such as the above-mentioned rezoning of about 150 housing sites, mainly covering vacant government land, GB sites and other sites adjacent to existing infrastructure and at the fringe of urban areas and new towns. However, when we put forward the rezoning proposals to respond to the imminent housing needs of society after careful assessment by our works departments to ensure that the proposed rezoning would not have an insurmountable impact on the community or the ecological environment, some parties still opposed us on the grounds that the proposed developments would erect single-block buildings, or might impact on traffic, air ventilation, landscape, or might involve tree-felling for building “luxurious flats” but not for public housing. Some even sought a judicial review with legal aid.
As for developing “brownfield sites” in the New Territories for housing purposes, we have carried out planning and engineering studies including public consultation on a large number of “brownfield sites” in Kwu Tung North, Hung Shui Kiu and Yuen Long South in an orderly manner. Since we need to deal with the reprovisioning of existing operations and relocation of squatter residents, the implementation is not such a quick fix as people might think. Furthermore, the trade and logistics industries account for about 24 per cent of Hong Kong’s GDP. Container terminal operations, port and logistics industries require large areas of land close to port for container transfer and other operations. Other brownfield users also need the land for vehicle repairing, waste recycling, and storage of construction machinery and materials. In fact, many of these industries are supporting the livelihood of the grassroots. When developing “brownfield sites”, we must take these into account and this is what we are working hard on. Let us not forget that land is required not only for housing, but also for economic activities and social development.
We will stay committed in our land use planning and land development work. Meanwhile, the whole of society is pondering on this - if the various options of reclamation, extension in existing urban areas, or developing GB areas of lower ecological value are not supported, then how can we get our land? How can we respond to the needs of some 300,000 applicants on the waiting list for public rental housing and those living in sub-divided units, as well as meet young people’s expectations on the housing issue? Owing to the nature and seriousness of these problems, there is no simple solution to them. If there are too many constraints on the possible ways to increase land supply, or intentional obstruction on various grounds, our society and people will eventually suffer.
In fact, all development options come with their own constraints at a particular time, and each has its own costs. When discussing a development option, if we focus only on the downsides and negative impacts of the option, or simply look for the so-called “easy” option instead of having an overall view of the problem our society is facing and acknowledge that there is no one single perfect solution to our problems, we will not be able to find a way out. I sincerely hope that we can all explore the land issues in a rational and pragmatic manner, and resolve any disputes in a responsible way. We will have to weigh the pros and cons and make trade-offs together.
29 November, 2015