Hong Kong's land use dispute will continue to be a 'hot potato'

Updated: 2012-11-15 08:45

By Raymond So(HK Edition)

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Hong Kong's land use dispute will continue to be a 'hot potato'

A heated debate making the rounds in the city is over the issue of land supply in Hong Kong. To those who are unfamiliar with Hong Kong's geography, there is always a perception that Hong Kong is characterized by a shortage of land and a dense population, which is partly correct, but untrue in another sense of looking at the issue. Actually, the often cited land shortage issue in Hong Kong is a general myth and is far from the reality.

The truth is that Hong Kong has a lot of land. And the apparent land shortage refers toa shortage of land that is readily available for development. In this sense, the so called shortage is not a quantity problem, but rather a problem of when the idle land can be developed.

Hong Kong has 1,100 square kilometers of land area in total. Up to now, less than 30 percent of it is developed. In the developed areas, all infrastructures are included: roads, bridges, hospitals, parks, commercial buildings, and of course, residential areas. Given the fact that the 7 million Hong Kong people need to be packed in the 30 percent developed area in the territory, it is no surprise that Hong Kong has such a dense population problem.

Hence, the real issue is not really a lack of land, but really how to make land available for use. This is the tricky point and there is no simple solution. Theoretically, there is still 70 percent of undeveloped land in Hong Kong, and the territory should have a lot of land development potential. But the undeveloped area has a lot of restrictions on future development. For example, the Country Parks Ordinance has included around 40 percent of Hong Kong's land, meaning once a piece of land is classified as a country park, it cannot be developed freely, or rather it is almost impossible to develop country park land. A simple arithmetic calculation will tell us that given 40 percent of land cannot be developed, we only have 30 percent land left.

Again, the remaining land is subject to restrictions and quite a huge proportion of it is located in the outlying islands. Without good transportation or connecting infrastructure, the potential for development of land located on outlying islands is very limited.

However, the government is not ignoring the problems. Indeed it has some suggestions on how to make use of the undeveloped land. However, there are always pros and cons on land use. It is virtually impossible to come to a consensus on future land development. For example, the government once mentioned that adjacent islands can be connected through reclamation and construction of bridges, so that the value of development can be increased. Environmental protection critics, however, strongly oppose this idea because nature will be affected. Another example is the renewal of old urban areas. Very often the Government's plans to redevelop some old urban districts is opposed by some people on the grounds that the renewal of these districts will deprive them of their collective memories. The old government office is a good example of this.

The situation becomes more acute with greater demand for public housing. The land supply of Hong Kong is already at the cross-roads. No matter which direction the land supply issue is approached, one thing for sure is that it will lead to another round of protests and complaints. The land supply issue will continue to remain a hot potato.

The author is dean, School of Business, Hang Seng Management College. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

(HK Edition 11/15/2012 page2)