The Hong Kong government’s plan earmarking eight brownfield sites in the New Territories for public housing is time-consuming and inefficient, according to a prominent think-tank.
The Our Hong Kong Foundation (OHKF), set up by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, has urged the government to take a more comprehensive approach by developing larger sites for multiple uses.
Pressing for a bolder vision, it proposed four large sites that could be used for business parks and vital logistics operations, as well as much-needed new homes. It would also help solve the issue of relocating occupants of brownfield sites, and free up space, the foundation said.
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In March, the government identified eight brownfield clusters ranging in size from one to 13 hectares in Yuen Long, Tuen Mun and Tai Po districts for public housing. Combining them with adjoining land parcels would produce 63 hectares on which more than 20,000 flats could be built in 10 years.
Brownfield sites refer mainly to agricultural land in the New Territories now occupied by warehouses for industrial, storage, logistics and parking uses.
The foundation, meanwhile, also supports the government’s massive land reclamation project, Lantau Tomorrow Vision, to boost long-term land supply for the city, but it found the plan for the brownfield sites wanting.
After visiting all eight sites, OHKF said they were too small and scattered. The land ownership was also fragmented, which would make it hard to carry out land resumption and resettlement. Some sites were also far from public transport facilities.
At Sha Po, in Yuen Long, the foundation found multiple owners and large-scale brownfield operations, such as international logistics companies, on the earmarked site. Clearing it for development would be difficult, it said.
Even if the government combined the sites with adjacent land, OHFK said, the space for housing would be limited because a significant proportion of the area needed to be set aside for roads and other public needs.
It also felt the government was too narrow in its goal of using the sites for housing only.
Stephen Wong Yuen-shan, deputy executive director and head of OHKF’s public policy institute, said many people had the mistaken impression that land was the only thing needed for new homes to be built.
Aside from housing, land was also needed for economic activities to support jobs for Hongkongers, he said, adding: “That is something that is often missed when people talk about land issues.”
In urging the government to think bigger, OHFK has identified four sites of 30 hectares or more each, that can be developed as dedicated logistics nodes or business parks.
They include an existing island for the boundary crossing facilities of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and proposed reclamation sites at Lung Kwu Tang and Tuen Mun West, Northwest New Territories and North New Territories. In the latter two, a science park and a new town have been planned.
Ryan Ip Man-ki, OHKF’s head of land and housing research, said: “If the government cannot manage the relocation of brownfield operators, it may delay the timeline of building housing.”
Of the four sites OHKF recommended, he said the boundary crossing facilities island would be the fastest to develop as the land is already reclaimed, there is no need for land resumption and no existing occupants to relocate. He estimated that the site could be developed within 10 years.
Its proposal connects housing with the needs of the Hong Kong economy, by encouraging logistics operators and other brownfield industries to move to larger, well-connected new sites, which in turn would free up land for housing and other developments.
Wong pointed out that the trading and logistics sector grew by 51 per cent, from HK$377 billion to HK$571 billion, from 2009 to 2018, and said: “The only way to diversify our economy is such that we have enough land for economic activities or land that is to support jobs.”
Responding to OHFK’s criticism of the plan for the brownfield sites, Chan Kim-ching, founder of the land concern group Liber Research Community, said he did not think fragmented ownership was an issue.
When it came to land resumption by the government, he noted, it was a matter of the government declaring the land to be acquired and paying compensation for the owners to move out.
“After three to six months, the land is automatically resumed by the government and the affected land owners get compensation,” he said.
His group has advocated brownfield redevelopment, rather than land reclamation, as the more sustainable way to deal with Hong Kong’s land shortage. It has identified more than 1,000 hectares of brownfield sites that could be developed.
“We need a more comprehensive brownfield development strategy that is not just focused on areas adjacent to new development areas or new towns,” he said. “In Hong Kong it’s not actually lack of land, but lack of a new concept of using those lands for housing needs.”
Responding to questions from the Post, the Planning Department said it had begun engineering feasibility studies on the eight brownfield clusters since June.
It said each site had “different degrees of technical challenges posed by limited infrastructure capacities on transport, drainage, sewerage and water supply facilities”.
The studies would examine the environmental impact from the proposed public housing development, and suggest necessary mitigation and improvement measures, it added.
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