Written by Henriette Leimer, ADMCF intern
Since SupportHK.org’s launch in December 2013, 19 petitions have been uploaded and approximately 50% of these are land-related. This is perhaps not surprising if recent local media reports are anything to go by; many issues that concern the Hong Kong public are clearly related to the impacts of inappropriate development.
With an increasing population, we are all familiar with Hong Kong’s long-term housing needs and the pressure to develop additional infrastructure. As a result, there has been much discourse over the years on Hong Kong’s sustainable development; let’s not forget that the environment is one of the three pillars of sustainability along with social and economic considerations.
In the late nineties, the Hong Government produced Sus Dev 21, a study that was to introduce the concept of sustainability into decision making. A key message was the need for a strategy setting out Hong Kong’s aspirations, objectives and goals for sustainability. Importantly, the study recognized that community expectations for involvement in the process of implementing sustainability were rising and should be addressed.
The study also recognized that sustainability is an ongoing process that seeks to strike a balance between the need for economic prosperity and at the same time address social and environmental issues.
In the mid 2000s, the Hong Kong 2030:Planning Vision and Strategy was produced, indicating that under the overarching goal for “sustainable development” Hong Kong’s planning strategy would follow three broad directions, namely: providing a quality living environment; enhancing economic competitiveness; and strengthening links with the Mainland.
The subsequent action agenda has focused on: Planning and Engineering Studies on New Development Areas; strengthening our partnership with Shenzhen; pressing ahead with Mega Projects.
Fast forward a few years and with much fanfare, the government talks about ‘Ten Major Infrastructure Projects to Boost our Economy’. According to Treasury Department figures in 2012-2013, the value of capital works contracts active in that year amounted to HK$599.5 billion, while actual expenditure was HK$66 billion.
This obviously does not include future projects such as the third runway, nor does it include private developments.
So what do we take from this? Development in Hong Kong is at full throttle and prosperity is high on the agenda.
Most of us will agree that there is much need to provide housing, improve infrastructure and living conditions as well as maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity, yet spend wisely. But the Hong Kong community is quite right in questioning the government’s decision-making, reasonably concerned about rising environmental and social costs of development.
Some immediate examples include: The Third Runway, the Zuhai Bridge, The North East New Territories New Development Area, the persistent reclamation of the harbour, the constant knocking down of perfectly good buildings to erect gleaming new ones (the relocation of the government central offices to Grade A harbor-front office space is a case in point).
The sense among people in Hong Kong is that in the 17 years since the Territory returned to Chinese rule, inequality and economic opportunity have worsened substantially. Now at 0.537, Hong Kong’s gini coefficient (where 0 represents equality and 1, total inequality) is among the highest in East Asia, and higher than that of the UK, United States, Singapore or Australia. In the 1980s, that number was 0.430.
Recent press coverage of the “cage” homes occupied by many without even access to public housing has caused outrage at the lack of care in a city where almost 20 percent of the population is estimated to live in poverty. Yet Hong Kong is still one of Asia’s richest cities, with billionaires, gleaming skyscrapers and fiscal reserves of over US$90.2 billion.
It seems the sustainability balance is weighing heavily on the side of economy.
One way the government appears to be tackling development pressure is to gradually eat away at our much-prized green space, notably the subject of several of SupportHK’s recent petitions.
As an example, there is much controversy that many development projects are not seriously addressing the housing needs. It’s argued that developers harm the wider public by eating into Hong Kong’s country parks and other green spaces for their own benefit.
One of Support HK’s most recent petitions throws the spotlight on a related issue that upsets many Hong Kongers: the Small House Policy (SHP).
In part to rectify the issues related to substandard housing, particularly in the rural New Territories, the then-British government in 1972 established the SHP, which stated that an indigenous male villager descended through the male line from a resident of a recognized village in the New Territories had the right to build one small house.
But in 1987 the Audit Commission on the Small House Policy discovered that landowners abused their rights by selling their property upon receipt of the Certificate of Compliance before paying the land premium fee to the government.
The review also found that from 1997 to 2002, 43% of newly built houses were sold and more than 80% were up for sale. The majority of these trades were made illegally through local agents, to whom sellers often had personal links.
The government repeatedly has told the public it is making efforts to amend the SHP. Yet so far there has been no change and as the policy continues to be implemented. Indeed, development in some of Hong Kong’s most beautiful enclaves has intensified.
One such example is illustrated by another of Support Hong Kong’s petitions – Hoi Ha. The Hoi Ha Marine Park is being threatened as a result of the allowed expansion of the village of Hoi Ha, resulting in significant damage to flora and fauna.
Local residents have asked that the area be included in an adjacent country park but so far that request has been denied and rights asserted under the controversial SHP.
There are many other petitions on SupportHK expressing concern about inappropriate development. We urge you to go online to SupportHK.org, join a growing community and sign a petition for change that will improve our environment, our green spaces and wildlife.
SupportHK.org is an important tool we can all use to contribute to a better Hong Kong.