Lawmakers raise questions over relocation in Hong Kong government’s plan to redevelop brownfield sites in New Territories for public housing

Lilian Cheng

Lawmakers have raised questions over technical problems in relocating industrial operators from 450 hectares (1,112 acres) of brownfield sites in northern New Territories which the Hong Kong government plans to redevelop for public housing.

At the Legislative Council’s development panel meeting on Tuesday, lawmakers grilled officials over the uncertainty surrounding the brownfield plan, as the latter unveiled details on the progress of the study.

While the long-drawn-out process to source land for public housing from brownfield sites is open to question, latest data shows the government is also struggling to meet the short-term target of housing supply. On Monday, the Housing Authority forecast 100,700 public-sector flats would be completed in the coming five years, reaching only about 64 per cent of the target.

In her policy address last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proposed resumption of brownfield sites – abandoned agricultural land occupied for industrial, storage, logistics, and parking uses – as one of the ways to source more land for public housings.

A consultant has concluded that 450 hectares of brownfield land can be transformed for public housing. Photo: Martin Chan

All the land measures Lam announced – including the brownfield site redevelopment project, a massive reclamation project, and a “land-sharing” scheme that seeks to unlock a rural land bank owned by private developers – are facing uncertainties.

At the panel on Tuesday, Bernadette Linn, permanent secretary for development, told lawmakers that a consultant had completed a two-year brownfield study and concluded that 450 hectares of such land, equivalent to around 21 Tai Koo Shings (a private residential estate in Hong Kong East), could be transformed for public housing.

She said some 160 hectares (297 acres) were considered to be of “high” redevelopment potential as they were situated close to existing infrastructure or new towns, and were located mainly in the northern rural parts of the city, such as Shap Pat Heung, Ping Shan and Lam Tei.

Two other areas – Ngau Tam Mei and Lau Fau Shan, which together draw another 290 hectares (717 acres) – have “medium” potential.

The Hong Kong government is struggling to meet even the short-term target of housing supply. Photo: Roy Issa

But lawmakers across the board doubted whether proper resettlement and compensation packages would be given to the businesses existing at those sites.

“Industrial units are worried at the prospect of a relocation, since they would not be able to afford a high rent in multistorey buildings,” transport sector lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming said, referring to the plans to move them to tall blocks.

“Some of them got kicked out of industrial buildings years ago due to revitalisation. Now, they are facing a forced move again.”

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The study found almost 73 per cent of all brownfield sites in the New Territories was used for warehousing, construction and car repairing.

Linn said to accommodate the affected units, the government would look for large land parcels in the new towns that were being built and at the nearshore reclamation at Lung Kwu Tan in Tuen Mun.

“The government will apply for funding of the [Tuen Mun] reclamation study early next year,” she added.

The other reclamation project, which aims to build massive artificial islands off Lantau as the city’s third business and housing hub, is also up in the air, with no timetable given so far since the funding request was postponed in June, amid the anti-government protests against the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

Linn said a separate study confirmed it was feasible to move the brownfield businesses into multistorey buildings, but that would require “considerable capital investment”.

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A market sounding exercise would therefore be needed to get in touch with interested investors and potential tenants, she added. The exercise will only be finished in the middle of next year.

Meanwhile, the Land Sharing Pilot Scheme – another policy address measure which seeks to unlock privately owned agricultural lots in the hands of big developers for both public and private housing development – has also been postponed from the middle of this year to early next year.

Michael Wong Wai-lun, Secretary of the Development Bureau, reassured that the land-sharing scheme would be a transparent one, and would involve an independent lawyer and an impartial third party, including experts from sectors, such as housing, planning and construction.

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