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Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 08:43

A fading dream of affordable housing

By Timothy Chui and Agnes Lu in Hong Kong
A fading dream of affordable housing
A fading dream of affordable housing

Villagers in Northeast New Territories work on their farmland. The village is near Kwu Tung, one of the three villages to be redeveloped under government plans. (Photos by Edmond Tang / China Daily)

The Town Planning Board (TPB) will begin a new round of public discussion on Oct 8, pitting the government’s hope to solve the acute housing crisis against opposition by some 6,500 residents of three villages and thousands more supporters.

The TPB seems to have its work cut out. Its recent initiative to address the paucity of housing in the city drew more than 50,000 public submissions, mostly opposed to the move. The plan calls for the redevelopment of the New Territories villages of Kwu Tung, Ta Kwu Ling and Ping Che and the contiguous lands in between. The TPB has set aside 28 days to deal with public grievance.

The board has asked permission from the Chief Executive to extend the deadline for approving the project, though TPB member Chau Kwai-cheong, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Geography and Resource Management, told China Daily hoping for a final “approval” was optimistic at best.

Opponents to the plan by people claiming to represent villagers’ interest have turned violent, with police prosecuting at least 17 people in connection to a June rally outside the Legislative Council which turned ugly and led to a melee.

Sixteen years in the planning stage, the project has already seen three rounds of public consultation. More than 40 changes were made to the initial plans. Proposals to double the number of sites for schools, add large-scale sports and recreation facilities, and establish green belts to protect wetlands and wildlife have been incorporated. Redesigning pedestrian paths, allocating dedicated farmland areas for relocation of villagers currently living in the area, have been factored in.

The government wants to build 60,700 new housing units over 7.87 hectares. Sixty percent of the new units would be designated as public housing. The redevelopment would increase population density of the area to 19,054 per square kilometer. The current population density, 825 per sq km, barely compares to the city-wide average of 6,650 per sq km.

Chau says, however, it appears most unlikely that the redevelopment proposal will pass in its original form — given that local villagers are intransigent. The main objections concern the loss of agricultural land and the displacement of people who work on the land.

From the government’s perspective there are also 37,700 new jobs riding on the project, including those for high technology specialists who would work in IT and research and development clusters near the Shenzhen River. Those sites today are mostly fallow.

A Planning Department spokesman estimated that 22 hectares of farmland would be plowed under but Conservancy Association campaign officer Roy Ng claims the loss of arable land will be much higher — in the order of 98 hectares.

Executive Council member Bernard Chan, however, dismisses arguments for protecting farmland in a city that imports more than 90 percent of its food supplies. Others who disagree with Chan’s point of view say agriculture could be viable again, if cultivable land was still available. There are objections to the forced relocation of non-indigenous villagers. They are multigenerational squatters, initially allowed to settle in the area at the end of the Second World War when public housing was virtually non-existent. While indigenous residents fear getting inadequate compensation, non-indigenous villagers worry they may get no compensation whatsoever.

The TPB will either approve the plan or forward it to the Chief Executive, or demand further amendments by government planners. That would set off a new round of public consultation, delaying the project, if not stalling it for good.

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