Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s policy address was full of controversy. For example, the uproar surrounding his criticism of the University of Hong Kong student magazine, Undergrad, has been in the spotlight for over a week now. Slightly off the media’s radar, the address also drew a swift reaction from six environmental groups, which criticised Leung for blaming the serious shortage of housing supply in Hong Kong on the zoning of large areas of land for non-development use, such as country parks.
Green groups are worried that the government is paving the way to build flats in our country parks, despite officials’ quick denials that this would happen under the current administration.
Leung’s argument that tough decisions have to be made for land development, implying that there are trade-offs between protecting the city’s environment and fulfilling housing targets, is irresponsible and misleading. It will fuel unnecessary tension and inject invalid reasoning into future debates on conservation and development, taking Hong Kong down the wrong, unsustainable path.
The root causes of Hong Kong’s current housing pressures are more likely associated with the past administration’s decision to suspend and slow down the supply of subsidised and public rental housing, as well as to end regular land sales in favour of a land application list system, which effectively gave developers control of land supply (the application system was only scrapped in 2013).
Low interest rates imposed by Hong Kong’s currency peg to the US dollar have also exacerbated the situation by fuelling demand for property as an investment. It has little to do with country parks that were zoned and created decades ago.
With the growing pressure to provide housing, the government is clearly becoming impatient with the long consultation process for land planning and development. However, putting Hong Kong through more rigorous urban planning processes with public consultations and civic participation should be seen as a strength, rather than a problem, in governance.
Overlooking the impact of development on our living environment – including the air quality, noise, traffic, conservation, biodiversity, and even air flow – for the sake of meeting housing targets would be a serious mistake.
By the same token, hastily rezoning green belts without thorough consideration of their ecological value will have long-term negative consequences for the city’s quality of life.
It is correct to say that country parks take up land that could be used to build flats. But one could equally say, for example, that private golf courses are taking up land that could be used to provide schools and hospitals.
When weighing the merits of keeping the country parks against providing housing, neglecting or underpricing the value of the ecological services provided by country parks will alarmingly distort the assessment in favour of development.
Decision-makers and their advisers should properly examine all associated costs and benefits of competing land uses, or risk inadvertently considering only “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.