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LCQ9: Assistance and compensation for farmers affected by development plans

Following is a question by the Hon Steven Ho and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Michael Wong, in the Legislative Council today (January 24):

Question:

In recent years, the Government has resumed a number of private agricultural lands in the New Territories for implementing development plans. Quite a number of farmers have relayed to me that some owners of agricultural lands have, after learning that their lands have been brought into the scopes of development plans, tried to drive their farmers to move out of their lands before the commencement of freezing surveys by employing every means (e.g. substantially increasing the rents and shortening the tenancy periods), in the hope of receiving higher compensations. Although the Government has implemented rehabilitation schemes for farmers affected by development plans, the progress for agricultural land matching is slow. Furthermore, the Government has acquired agricultural lands from time to time for use as temporary work sites for development plans, but subsequently reverted to farmers the agricultural lands with surface soil so severely damaged that they are not suitable for farming, or did not revert the lands to them at all, resulting in indefinite delay in the resumption of farming by farmers. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of (i) the number of affected farmers under the various development plans (including Yuen Long South, Kwu Tung North and Fanling North New Development Areas, as well as Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area) in the past five years, as well as the respective areas of (ii) agricultural lands and (iii) active agricultural lands involved;

(2) notwithstanding that the authorities' reason for not conducting the freezing surveys for farmers at an earlier stage is to prevent those farmers who have moved in after the completion of freezing surveys from being disqualified to claim ex-gratia allowances, how the authorities will improve the arrangements for freezing surveys, so that farmers who have been driven to move out by owners before the commencement of freezing surveys may receive reasonable compensations;

(3) of the details of the rehabilitation schemes implemented in the past five years by the authorities in respect of the various development plans in the New Territories (including implementation timetables, respective areas of government lands and private lands involved, as well as the findings of the studies on whether the lands concerned were suitable for farming); the specific arrangements for implementing the special agricultural land rehabilitation schemes applicable to Yuen Long South, Kwu Tung North and Fanling North New Development Areas, as well as Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area, which are under study by the authorities;

(4) given that there are now nearly 300 cases pending agricultural land matching under the rehabilitation schemes, and the matching time is as long as up to four to five years, whether the number of such cases and the waiting time for matching have shown an upward trend recently; if so, whether the authorities have looked into the reasons for that; whether immediate measures (e.g. increasing manpower) are in place to expedite the matching efforts, so as to assist the affected farmers in resuming farming as early as possible; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(5) of the authorities' compensation policy in relation to acquisition of agricultural lands on a temporary basis; whether the authorities will, under such policy, offer compensations for a decrease in the economic value of agricultural lands caused by damage of surface soil; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?

Reply:

President,

In the planning for development of rural area in the New Territories, the Government has tried to minimise the impacts on residents and other stakeholders in the area. However, it is inevitable that some existing occupants and users of land would be affected, including some farmers who will not be able to continue their agricultural practices in-situ. Under the existing land resumption and clearance mechanism, there are established compensation and rehousing arrangements, taking care of affected parties, including farmers.

Having consulted the Food and Health Bureau (FHB), the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), the Lands Department and the Planning Department, our replies to various parts of the question are as follows:

(1) The information on the existing farming activities in Kwu Tung North/Fanling North (KTN/FLN) New Development Areas (NDAs), Hung Shui Kiu (HSK) NDA and Yuen Long South (YLS) Development is set out below:
 
  Affected No. of farmers Estimated area of affected farmland
(Note 1)
 (hectare (ha)) (about) 
Estimated area of affected active farmland (ha)
(about)
KTN/FLN NDAs (Note 2) No relevant information at this stage as land resumption not yet commenced
 
64 28
HSK NDA (Note 3) 27 7
YLS Development (Note 4) 12 5
 
Note 1: Including active farmland.
Note 2: According to the North East New Territories New Development Areas Planning and Engineering Study completed in 2013.
Note 3: According to the Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area Planning and Engineering Study completed in 2017.
Note 4: According to the Recommended Outline Development Plan promulgated under the Planning and Engineering Study for Housing Sites in Yuen Long South in August 2017.

(2) Under the existing mechanism for assessment of extra-gratia allowances (EGAs) for crops, the Government will not undertake any freezing survey for farmers and their farming activities. Instead, the Government will, nearer the time of land reversion to the Government, post notices to invite the affected farmers to claim for EGAs. Upon receipt of the claims, the Government will then take stock of the crops concerned and assess the amount of EGAs. The arrangement has taken into account the relatively mobile nature of agricultural activities such that farmland can support agricultural activities by various farmers and the species planted and their quantities can vary from time to time prior to the land reversion to the Government. In other words, farmers who genuinely farm at the concerned locations near the time of land reversion will be eligible to claim and receive EGAs. Whether they started their farming activities at the concerned locations at an earlier stage is not a pre-requisite.

If we introduce a freezing survey at an earlier stage as proposed by some stakeholders, it will be equivalent to setting a new condition requiring that the concerned farmers have to be recorded farming at the same locations at an earlier stage, in addition to the requirement that they are actually affected by the land resumption. If so, farmers with their operations started after the freezing survey will not be entitled to submit claims and receive the EGAs, notwithstanding that they are actually affected by the land resumption. We hope that the industry will carefully weigh the pros and cons of introducing freezing survey of farmers. In addition, on some stakeholders' belief that an early freezing survey will provide farmers with better protection, we must point out that the freezing survey cannot override the tenancy agreements between landowners of agricultural land and their tenant farmers, and also related tenancy arrangements. The tenancy agreements are private agreement matters, in which the Government cannot not intervene. If individual farmers have actually moved out prior to the Government's land resumption as a result of tenancy termination, the Government still has no justification for making use of public coffers to grant them EGAs.

On the other hand, if there are structures on the agricultural land for farmers' use, the Government will make such records in the freezing survey of structures to facilitate the future assessment of the eligibility of the households in these structures for compensation and rehousing in accordance with the prevailing arrangements.

(3) and (4) According to FHB and AFCD, to assist those who wish to rent private land for farming, AFCD implements the Agricultural Land Rehabilitation Scheme (ALRS), serving as a middleman by matching landowners with prospective tenants in order to help facilitate agreements on tenancy. Over the past five years (2013-2017), there were 105 successful cases, involving approximately 20 ha of agricultural land. AFCD will continue to encourage landowners to lease their land for farming in order to rehabilitate fallow farmland.

AFCD will proceed with the matching once applications for leasing land under ALRS are received.  Ultimately it is the landowners' decision on whether to lease out their land for agricultural use. Some landowners, having considered the rental return, would rather leave their farmland fallow than lease out for farming. As the agricultural land available for leasing is rather limited and outnumbered by applications, applicants therefore need to wait for a certain period of time before successfully leasing the farmland.  Over the past five years (2013-2017), the waiting time of successful cases increases slightly along with increase in the number of new applications.  AFCD's procedures of or manpower for processing applications do not have any bearing on the length of waiting time.

To assist farmers affected by the KTN/FLN NDAs, HSK NDA and YLS development projects, the Government will proactively identify suitable government land and landowners who are willing to sell or lease their land for agricultural rehabilitation, and carry out matching under the Special Agricultural Land Rehabilitation Scheme. We will continue to search for suitable agricultural land for agricultural rehabilitation. In tandem with the development schedules of the projects, we will promulgate the detailed arrangements of the Special Agricultural Land Rehabilitation Scheme in due course to assist affected farmers to undertake farming practices.

In addition, the Government plans to build an Agricultural Park managed by AFCD in Kwu Tung South to help nurture agro-technology and agro-business management, as well as to facilitate knowledge transfer so as to enhance productivity.  At the same time, the Agricultural Park may serve to accommodate eligible farmers affected by government development projects that happen to take place within the same timeframe, should they wish to continue farming.

(5) For the implementation of public works projects, if needed, the Government will create rights of temporary occupation of private land, in the works area for a certain period according to relevant ordinances. The relevant landowners and farmers may be granted respective compensation and EGAs for the temporary occupation of land. They may also submit claims in accordance with the relevant ordinances. Upon expiry of the occupation period, the Government will reinstate and return the land to the landowners according to the conditions as recorded prior to commencement of works.

Ends/Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Issued at HKT 14:30
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