Hong Kong’s development minister on Friday faced accusations that officials had ridden roughshod over a special task force on land supply when they announced a controversial plan to build expensive man-made islands without the body’s endorsement.
The reclamation project, said by a government source to cost up to HK$500 billion (US$63.8 billion), was disclosed by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her annual policy speech on Wednesday.
But the announcement came before an official Task Force on Land Supply – appointed to study options to free up land in space-starved Hong Kong – concludes a public consultation exercise in which the idea was only one of 18 options on the table.
Critics said the cost of the proposed islands – amounting to half of the city’s fiscal reserves – was unjustifiable. Others raised concerns about the environmental impact, and said the project would take many years.
Another accusation was that officials had defeated the point of appointing the task force in the first place by not waiting for its conclusions before pressing ahead.
But Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun on Friday insisted Lam had not disregarded the task force’s work.
“Society has enormous concerns over Hong Kong’s shortage of land,” Wong said. “Could she have waited until her 2019 policy address to announce this? I think she couldn’t. She had to make a decision.”
The reclamation plan, which would provide 1,700 hectares of land to the east of Lantau, is part of Lam’s “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” to turn the city’s largest outlying island into a residential and business hub. The area could house up to 1.1 million people in the next two to three decades, she said.
The task force has been carrying out a public consultation since April but the results are not due until the end of the year.
Besides jumping ahead, Lam also expanded the scale of the project from 1,000 to 1,700 hectares.
However, Wong said only the first 1,000 hectares off Kau Yi Chau had a concrete plan so far, which was consistent with the consultation. The remaining 700 hectares around Hei Ling Chau would need to be studied further, he said.
Wong pledged a lengthy public consultation if the government decided to press ahead with the extra 700.
The government had decided to review the project scale after realising predictions on land needs were “grossly inadequate”, he said.
Officials previously forecast Hong Kong would require 1,200 hectares for housing and economic development. But Wong said the estimation had not taken into account the need for larger living spaces, better facilities for an ageing population, or an influx of residents from older districts while those areas were redeveloped.
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The decision to expand the project was taken during confidential preparations for Lam’s policy address and so had to be kept secret from the task force, he added.
Wong would not confirm the HK$500 billion cost estimate, but said previous reclamation had cost up to HK$1,500 per sq ft, excluding infrastructure. That figure puts the price of the new plan at about HK$275 billion.
Lam on Friday said artificial islands were “the only way to form land” and Hong Kong needed to follow Singapore and Macau’s example.
Speaking on a radio programme, she said the government had almost run out of options for near-shore reclamation. Acquiring farmland or developing brownfield sites would be costly and difficult, she added.
“We would have to pay a high price for agricultural land” because the government had been upping compensation packages for landowners, Lam said.
Wong estimated in May that up to HK$550 million of taxpayers’ money would be spent in the next two decades on more generous rehousing and compensation terms for northern New Territories villagers forced to make way for new town developments.
Removing businesses on brownfield sites and relocating affected residents also required land, officials said.
Lam conceded that in the last four or five years the government had upset a lot of people by reclassifying what some land could be used for, such as by turning open spaces into areas for homes.
And as for the idea of reclamation at other locations, the chief executive said she had limited options.
“You look at Ma Liu Shui reclamation … it has attracted intense criticism and objection,” she said.
Lung Kwu Tan in Tuen Mun and Sunny Bay on Lantau had also been floated as possibilities, she added, but the sites could not be used for residential developments.
“I just cannot find any more [options] near shore … so where is the land?” Lam said.
As the city’s leader, she had to find a way to increase land supply, she believed.
“Whether we want to have a more sustainable and assured supply of land is an issue that … the chief executive cannot shirk responsibility for,” she said.