Sep 13, 2012|
On September 2, while secondary school students were hunger striking at Tamar, a smaller-scale but equally vociferous protest was being staged. Several hundred villagers from Kwu Tung North, Fanling North, Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling also staked out the government offices. They chanted slogans protesting against demolition and removal—their homes are slated to be destroyed, according to the government’s plan to develop the northeastern New Territories.
The development plan is not a new one. As early as 1998, former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa floated the idea to develop Kwu Tung North, Fanling North, Ping Che and Ta Kwu Leng into three new development areas (NDAs). However, the plan was halted due to a slower-than-expected population expansion in 2003. Then in 2007, Donald Tsang restarted the Hong Kong 2030 Planning Vision and Strategy scheme, and the Northeastern New Territories were again slated to be developed. The three NDAs will total 787 hectares, of which 533 hectares will be built upon. The consultation was done in the dark, and the majority of the public only learnt of the development plan at the last stage of the consultation. Originally the consultation was set to conclude at the end of August, but due to staunch opposition, the government has extended the deadline until the end of September. Here, we line out the many problems and shortcomings of the government’s plans.
The government backs up the development plan by stating that more homes will be built in the northeast New Territories—an appealing idea in the wake of rocketing house prices. Around 54,000 homes will be built, with 40 percent of the flats set aside for public housing. During her tenure as Secretary for Development, Carrie Lam said the ratio of public housing should be kept at less than 50 percent in order to avoid a repeat of the disastrous Tin Shui Wai new town in Yuen Long. “The problem with Tin Shui Wai is not that there is too much public housing. It is because of the monopolies [for example, the community is served only be The Link and Li Ka-shing’s shopping malls and there are very few independent vendors] and insufficient jobs for the working class. Even hawking is prohibited,” says Chan Kim-ching, a researcher from Local Research Community, a think-tank focusing on urban planning. On the other hand, the project’s 21,600 public housing flats, which will be made available by the year 2022, don’t even come close to satisfying the government’s target of building 15,000 public housing homes per year. We have to ask—is getting rid of all this precious green space worth it? On the private housing side, low-density homes will be built. However, it is questionable whether these flats will be affordable for the majority of the Hong Kong public—Chan worries that they will be snapped up by mainland buyers instead of satisfying local housing needs.
In order to justify the project, the government has, once again, cited population growth in its push to build more housing. A government press release states: “According to the latest population projections, there will be an increase of about 1.4 million people in the coming 30 years. There is still a strong demand for land for housing and economic development.” However, the Census and Statistics Department has a track record of overestimating Hong Kong’s population growth. In 2002, the department predicted that Hong Kong’s population would hit 7.53 million by 2011. But today, Hong Kong’s population is 7.14 million—way off government estimates. The department itself has also lowered its population estimates. In 2004, it predicted that Hong Kong’s population would surge to 8.72 million by mid-2031. But latest predictions stand at 8.47 million by mid-2041. So if the government’s predictions are not accurate and consistent, how can it justify such a large-scale development?
It is estimated that more than 10,000 villagers will be affected by the plan, and that more than 10 villages will be demolished. Almost all of the villages that are under threat are largely inhabited by non-indigenous villagers. Non-indigenous villagers migrated to Hong Kong after World War II. They farmed in the New Territories and built their homes near their fields. However, they are not landowners because land in the New Territories belongs to indigenous villagers. So even though the non-indigenous villagers have lived in the area for decades, according to authorities, they have no rights to the land. “The most ridiculous thing is, even though non-indigenous villagers have been living there for 50 or 60 years, their houses are still classified as squatter huts, a temporary form of housing. The authorities don’t recognize their housing rights… Non-indigenous villagers are easy targets of bullying because their rights are not protected by law,” says Chan.
Although it is the non-indigenous villagers who will be most affected by the development plans, no one sought to gain their input. In fact, the first and second phases of the consultation, which were conducted in 2009 and 2010, did not actively engage them at all. “The villagers of Ping Che did not know about the plan before—they only learned of the plan when they were invited to a poon choi banquet hosted by gleeful indigenous villagers. Some of the elderly villagers attended, and they were only told at the feast that the celebration was because the government would claim the land for development. They only learned that they would have to move at the banquet,” Chan says.
Unlike urban renewal projects, the government has not conducted any studies to investigate how many villagers are going to be affected; neither has it come up with any compensation or resettlement plans for the affected villagers. The only thing the government has done is to carve out a 3.2 hectare parcel of land in Kwu Tung North, where a public housing project will accommodate the non-indigenous villagers.
Meanwhile, indigenous villagers are set to reap huge profits. All the land in the new Territories land is either owned by indigenous villagers or property developers. As the government has allocated $40 billion to buy land, it is certain that indigenous villagers will pocket part of the money. To add insult to injury, while their non-indigenous counterparts face the demolition of homes, the indigenous villages will be kept largely intact. Also, the government has saved land for the future expansion of indigenous villages. Within the three NDAs, around six hectares of land has been set aside for this purpose.
Another inevitable consequence of developing the New Territories is the loss of farmland. A spokesperson of the Planning Department tells HK Magazine that 22 hectares of land under active cultivation will be affected by the development. That figure is significantly lower than estimates by environmental groups, which have come up with the figure of 98 hectares. “The government data refers to the land being farmed currently, but we focus on arable land. When we talk about arable land, it also includes abandoned land which has the potential to be rehabilitated. It is for sure that the government has not included such land in its figure of 22 hectares. From the perspective of agricultural development, abandoned land can be rehabilitated. So why don’t we protect and rehabilitate this land?” says Roy Ng, the Conservancy Association’s senior campaign officer.
The government has pledged to maintain a total of 54 hectares as agricultural zones. However, 37 of these so-called “protected” hectares are found in Long Valley, a well-established and very active farming area. The government plans to relocate many of the farmers who have been displaced by the project to Long Valley, a move that’s bound to cause friction between agriculturalists. “If we move all the affected farmers to Long Valley, it means that some of the farmers [who are already] in Long Valley have to move away,” Ng says. “The agricultural practices of the farmers are very different. In Long Valley, most of the farmers are growing wetland crops. But most farmland in Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling is not wetland… If we move all these farmers to wetland areas, it may have an adverse impact on the conservation of Long Valley.”
The government also claims that affected farmers can buy or rent land with the help of the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD)—referring to the department’s Agricultural Land Rehabilitation Scheme, which “provides assistance for land owner, tenant farmers, or members of the public to reach agreement on tenancy.” In short, it functions as a matchmaker between landlords and tenants. “The government only acts as a middleman. The dominating power still lies in the hands of landlords and property developers. In these past years, it is clearly seen that developers would rather leave the land uncultivated than let others rehabilitate it,” says Ng. From 2007 to 2011, the AFCD only managed to assist 73 people leasing and rehabilitating 11.2 hectares of farmland. Some 200 people are still on the waiting list.
The loss of arable land is an irreversible change. If we sacrifice farmland in exchange for more development, the basic question we should ask is what kind of agricultural policy we need in the city. “Hong Kong needs to produce a certain amount of food,” says Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, who teaches biology at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Currently, Hong Kong only produces two to three percent of locally-sold vegetables, but Wong reckons that there is room for increasing the production. “I think doubling the current production is doable.” However, the pre-condition of healthy farming industry is land security and stability. If the government doesn’t do more to protect farmland from development, all this talk on envisioning a stable farming or food policy will be for nothing.
Kwu Tung North, Fanling North, Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling are not the only areas set to be developed in the New Territories. In fact, several development plans are being discussed simultaneously [read more on p.13]. It is hard to get an overall sense of how the area might look if these developments all go ahead, as the government has been doing the consultations separately, area by area. In fact, these consultations quite often contradict themselves. For example, in the three NDAs consultation, the government clearly stated the plot ratio of housing to be built. But in another consultation regarding the Northern Link [the rail may pass through the three NDAs], the Transport Department seeks opinions from the public as to whether more homes need to be built. Not only does this make it difficult for the public to grasp the full scale of development in the New Territories, it once again highlights the fact that the government does not have an overall development plan.
“If you look at the basics, do we need new development? And new development in the simplest form means: do we need gross floor area for different uses—do we need new GFA [gross floor area]? The answer is yes,” says Paul Zimmerman of Designing Hong Kong. “If we all agree that we ultimately need space, we can still discuss how much space we need.”
Apart from the amount of land to be developed, the public should also discuss the means of development. If there is a genuine need to develop the New Territories, the government should prioritize developing “brownfield sites,” which refer to land that has already been contaminated. A certain amount of land in the New Territories has already turned into container sites, car parks and recycling sites; developing these brownfield sites first means that the loss of arable land will be reduced. According to a study conducted by the Professional Commons in March, there are about 800 hectares of brownfield sites in the New Territories, which is already more than the total area of the three NDAs. However, the government has not really looked into the possibility of redeveloping these sites; nor has it collected any data regarding brownfield sites in the New Territories.
The government could also make use of the already vacant land in the urban areas for its plans. In early July, former Secretary for Development Mak Chai-kwong stated that the vacant land in urban areas which has been zoned for residential use amounts to 2153.7 hectares. This vacant land is distributed throughout every district. If the government makes use of this land, it will also help quench the thirst for housing, and our rich farmland need not be destroyed just yet.
Villagers are fighting for the right to remain in th eir homes, undisturbed by government intervention. Here’s what they have to say.
I have been living in Ping Che for almost five decades, and all my children were born there. Ping Che is a large village, where thousands of people reside. We only knew that our village would be demolished a few months ago, and we only caught wind of some rumors before. Ping Che is spacious, and we grow produce for ourselves. When we first came to Ping Che, it was a primitive place. We have been renting land from the villagers since then. And Ping Che has become a beautiful village due to our efforts. I don’t want to see our village be destroyed. My children have grown up, and they don’t want to move out either.
Amy, 50s, Ping Che resident
Our family has been living in Kwu Tong for three generations. Two years ago, we found out that our land had to be claimed back [by the government]. The development plan had been formulated for a long time, but the officials never told us about it. We were shocked to learn of the plan, and we think the government has kept the plan in the dark. There are a few hundred villagers, and we all know each other. Even though I am young, I love the rural life a lot. I lived in private buildings in Fanling for more than two years as it was closer to my school. The feeling was very different. In our village, everyone says hi to each other; we even know the name of each dog! [In Fanling], I didn’t know my neighbors, and I didn’t even notice when they moved away. I hope our village will not be demolished because we want to keep our lifestyle. We will continue to fight for our rights.
Hiu Ching, 18, Kwu Tung North resident
I have never joined any protest. This is my first time because the government wants to take away the land from our village. The officials never consulted us, and it seems that we have to comply with every order of the government. There are fruit trees in front of our house, and the trees are 20 to 30 years old. We get all kinds of fruits to eat. Lychee, longan, jackfruit, aloe and melons…you name it. It’s no different from an orchard. When we were kids, we didn’t need to close our doors because we would just go next door to play with other children. A lot of structures are very old, and they are our heritage. We have gotten used to the rural way of living, and it’s difficult for us to adapt to a city life. We don’t want any compensation. There are many elderly people in our village, and they have been living here for decades. For those skeptics who think that we are only demanding more compensation, try to think from our perspectives. We have been living here for decades, and our home will be lost!
Mr. Lee, 30, Kwu Tung North resident
An outline of the redevelopment plans by region.
1. Kwu Tong, Fanling North, Ping Che/Tai Koo Leng New Development Areas (NDAs)
Size: 533 hectares.
Progress: Stage 3 of public engagement.
2. Hung Sui Kiu NDA
No outline development plan has been released, but it will be turned into an NDA that caters a population of 160,000. The government will also save land for the development of “Six Industries”—testing and certification, medical services, innovation and technology, cultural and creative industries, environmental industries and education services.
Size: 790 hectares.
Progress: Stage 2 of public engagement to be commenced; in operation by 2024.
3. Lok Ma Chau Loop
Once the property of Shenzhen, the Loop was allocated to Hong Kong after realignment of the Shenzhen river in 1997. The area will be turned into a higher education zone.
Size: About 87 hectares.
Progress: Stage 2 of public engagement completed; in operation by 2020.
4. Liangtang/Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point
Progress: construction will start in 2013; in operation by 2018.
5. Frontier Closed Area (FCA)
Established by the British for strategic reasons, the FCA will be downsized and land will be released for development. Due to the area’s history, it hasn’t been touched by any development.
Use: A country park will be designated near Robin’s Nest. Other areas are zoned as green belt and for agricultural uses. But a comprehensive development zone and residential areas are designated for Hung Lung Hang. Hoo Hok Wai, another ecologically sensitive area that occupies 240 hectares, is zoned under “other specific uses,” which also means that further development is possible.
Size: 2,400 hectares.
Progress: 740 hectares of FCA has already been opened up in the first phase.
6. Southern Yuen Long
The government is planning to build housing—both private and public—in the area.
Size: About 200 hectares.
Progress: The Development Bureau will conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), planning and engineering study at the same time. In operation by 2015.
7. Sha Lo Tung
It has been earmarked as one of the 12 sites of ecological importance. The site is an important habitat for butterflies and fireflies. Under the government’s Public-Private Partnership scheme, the developer wants to build a columbarium with 60,000 niches, while establishing an ecological reserve.
Size: The columbarium is set to be four hectares in size.
Progress: The EIA has already been completed, but the Advisory Council on the Environment halted the decision.
8. Nam Shen Wai
Another spot for the Public-Private Partnership scheme. The developer is planning to build 1,600 housing units, including 600 Home Ownership Scheme flats, in the southern part. It also wants to build elderly care homes to increase the social care elements. The Northern part of Nam Shen Wai and Lut Chau will be designated as a conservation area. Green groups oppose the plan because parts of the wetland will be lost.
Size: 121 hectares.
Progress: The EIA has been completed. The application will be submitted to the Town Planning Board in September.
9. Fung Lok Wai
The area is also classified as one of 12 areas with significant ecological value. Five percent of the land will accommodate luxury homes, while 95 percent of land will be turned into a conservation area. Fung Lok Wai is very close to Mai Po.
Size: 4.1 hectares (development area).
Progress: Awaiting a decision from the Town Planning Board.