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Embrace Challenges in Comprehensive Site-Searching (1)

High property prices, soaring rents and inadequate housing have troubled Hong Kong people for the past years. The 2017 Policy Address announced in January by the Chief Executive summed up the progress of the Government’s initiatives on increasing land supply in the short, medium and long term, which had laid a solid foundation for resolving the long-standing imbalance between land supply and demand.

The Government has been adopting a multi-pronged land use planning and development strategy, and implementing a series of comprehensive measures without overlooking any feasible solution to put land resources to gainful use or boost land supply. However, with persistently high rents, rising property prices and long waiting time for public housing, the Government still needs to step up its efforts in providing land for housing.

With the Government's efforts over the past few years, I believe most people would have a better grasp of the land shortage issue and the need to identify additional land. However, there are still partial and biased comments on individual development projects, making it hard for the public to get to the crux of the issue. For instance, some people claimed that the Government has a lot of idle land which is readily available for development.  Others argued that indiscriminate development of all brownfield sites and farmland in the New Territories can accommodate hundreds of thousands of people in the short term.  I would like to take this opportunity to once again let the facts speak for itself, in particular the Government’s efforts to make optimal use of urban land resources and develop brownfield sites in the New Territories, with a view to reaching a consensus and working with the public to resolve the severe imbalance in land supply.

Thousands of hectares of idle land is a myth

The Government has, in many occasions, explained with relevant information that the proposition that “large amount of idle land in the urban area is available for development” is not true. In response to a question raised by a Legislative Council member in 2012, the Development Bureau had compiled statistics on a one-off basis on the unleased or unallocated government land within individual land use zonings at the time.  The Government already made it clear that unleased or unallocated government land is not the same as “idle land” or areas of developable land.  In fact, a considerable portion of such lands such as man-made or natural slopes, passageways, back lanes, empty space between buildings and fragmented sites near existing streets, is not suitable for development.

We have also explained in detail that we have to undergo different stages and procedures to turn “potential sites” to “disposable” ones. Prior to development, it is necessary to tackle various technical issues such as traffic and environmental assessments, carry out site formation works and provide infrastructure. The process takes time. Therefore, individual unleased or unallocated sites may have been reserved or being planned for long-term uses, or may be undergoing various necessary technical assessments, procedures or works for long-term development or other purposes. These should not be regarded as “idle”. To make optimal use of land resources, the Government will, as far as practicable, let out these lands under short term tenancies (STT) or allocate them for other temporary uses before their long-term development uses are ready to be taken forward. Nevertheless, there may certainly be some lands which cannot be allocated for short-term or temporary uses, but that does not mean that the Government is not optimising the use of land resources.

The various land use reviews conducted by the Planning Department have indeed covered the above-mentioned sites, which are currently unleased or unallocated, under STT or allocated for different short-term or government uses. The some 210 sites identified by this term of Government for short- and medium-term housing show our determination to optimise land use and leave no stone unturned. In fact, there were criticisms that Government “grab land blindly” when we tried to rezone individual sites under STT or those reserved for designated purposes for housing development.  This demonstrated that the Government has never missed out the so-called “idle” land. In the words of the Chief Executive, every single bit like these marks the hard work of land identification.

If the public or the local community can come forth with any suggestion on “idle land” for development, we will, as always, study in detail the feasibility of such sites for residential uses especially public housing, and propose rezoning or development plan if feasible. The prerequisites are that these sites have not been or are no longer reserved for designated purposes, or have no development plans or uses, and have development potentials without major technical obstacles upon preliminary review.

Brownfield sites always our priority

The accusation that the Government has avoided the development of brownfield sites is totally unfounded. Consolidating and releasing brownfield sites for development is one of the major directions of the Government’s multi-pronged land development strategy. Through comprehensive planning, large-scale development projects such as Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area (NDA), Yuen Long South, and the Kwu Tung North/Fanling North NDAs would release a total of about 340 hectares of brownfield sites for high-density development. At the same time, public housing developments like the Wang Chau project also involve larger areas of brownfield sites. The proposed development in New Territories North under the long-term strategic planning of “Hong Kong 2030+” (“Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030”) is expected to encompass about 200 hectares of brownfield clusters. The area of brownfield sites expected to be released through various large-scale developments is detailed in Table 1. It is crystal-clear that the consolidation and release of sizeable brownfield sites is one of our major sources of land supply. Nevertheless, it does take considerable time to implement these projects, and it is unrealistic to think that resumption of brownfield sites for housing development would be an easy and quick fix. This is why land use planning and development requires long-term commitment. What we are planning today will be the land sources after 10, 20 or 30 years.

Some people have suggested that the Government should fully resume or even eradicate brownfield sites in the rural New Territories in order to release land and enhance the environment. Let me explain the evolution and legal status of brownfield sites for better understanding of the public. When the New Territories was leased to the British government in the late 19th century, most of the flat land suitable for farming in the New Territories was private agricultural land. The brownfield site issue evolved from the High Court’s judgment in the Melhado case in 1983, which led to subsequent change of use of agricultural land. For agricultural land allocated under the Block Government Leases, the lot owner may use the land for purposes other than agriculture as long as the development does not involve “noisome or offensive trades” and does not include any structures. As a result, the agriculture land lots have gradually transformed into brownfield sites today.

Under the statutory planning regime, land uses (including brownfield operations that have already come into existence in 1980s) that were in existence immediately before the first publication of the relevant Development Permission Area Plan are regarded as an "existing use" under the Town Planning Ordinance and do not constitute unauthorised developments. In addition, taking into consideration the operational needs of certain sectors, the Planning Department has been making prudent arrangements and designating appropriate areas in statutory plans for open storage, port back-up uses and rural industries in order to regulate and prevent these activities from proliferating in the New Territories. Given the aforementioned historical development, many existing brownfield sites are neither in breach of lease conditions nor the statutory planning regime. In such cases, assuming no illegal occupation of government land, the Government does not have the authority to carry out enforcement actions against such operations or eradicate them.

Owing to the aforementioned developments, brownfield sites are scattered, mostly of irregular shape and size, intermingled with villages, squatters, active and fallow farmland, vegetation clusters and small knolls that lack infrastructure facilities like sufficient roads, water supply and drainage systems to support high-density development. As a result, it is difficult to release the potential of brownfield sites by isolated developments.  Instead, brownfield development has to be carried out through large-scale comprehensive planning approach with the support of suitable infrastructure facilities. This is also the main reason for the Government to focus on the planning in Kwu Tung North/Fanling North, Hung Shui Kiu and Yuen Long South where brownfield sites are concentrated.

Table 1: Area of brownfield sites expected to be released through large-scale development projects

 Large-scale development projects
 Estimated areas of brownfield sites to be released
 Kwu Tung North/Fanling North New Development Areas  Around 50 hectares
 Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area  Around 190 hectares
 Yuen Long South  Around 100 hectares
 The New Territories North  Around 200 hectares
 Total  Around 540 hectares

12 March, 2017