Compromise in Hong Kong land search? Just forget it

SCMP

The membership of a new land search team set up by the government is more interesting for those who are missing. Gone are the usual big developers and Heung Yee Kuk honchos. Instead, you get a bunch of professional urban planners, academics and moderate political figures used to working with the government.

If nothing else, at least the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor can’t be accused of collusion with the rich property boys this time.

Lam said the team would review and evaluate land supply options and engage the community in debate about their pros and cons. In 18 months, they will hopefully come up with a consensus on the way forward.

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It will probably be easier to achieve a consensus among such middle-of-the-road “experts”. Whether the recommendations they come up with will overcome resistance from different vested interests in society is a different matter.

But the team is still small progress of sorts. The real issue, as it recognises at the outset, is not the lack of land. Rather, land shortages stem from fundamental conflicts between different interest groups.

“It’s not really a technical difficulty, it’s more of a political problem,” said team member Professor Chau Kwong-wing, a specialist in housing policy at the University of Hong Kong.

Chau, unfortunately, along with HKU colleague Professor Lawrence Lai Wai-chung upset environmental groups with their proposal to drain Plover Cove, the city’s second-largest reservoir, to free up 1,200 hectares for housing.

But to be fair, they also proposed cancelling rural land leases held by developers if they do not build on their sites.

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Today, green groups don’t want to lose a square inch of country parks, or to have any reclamation off Lantau Island. Developers want to hold on to their huge land banks. New Territories strongmen sitting on the kuk refuse to compromise on land provisions under the “small-house policy” or to help rationalise development planning for brownfield sites and unauthorised village expansions.

Meanwhile, urban renewal in old districts has become increasingly politicised and prohibitively expensive.

If all those groups would compromise just a little bit, we could easily free up enough land to meet a shortage of 44,000 public housing flats, and much else besides. But we prefer to point fingers at each other and refuse to give an inch.

I wish the new team good luck.

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