Out of the past to solve Hong Kong's present housing problem

Francis Neoton Cheung believes two ideas from our recent past could be adapted in today's Hong Kong to free up or create land for liveable housing - land exchange and reclamation

Initial reactions to the government's long-term housing strategy consultation document have tended to focus on its gaping hole - the availability of land needed to build the proposed 470,000 housing units over the next decade. However, attempts to fill the hole with talk of sacrificing precious country park land opened a can of worms so big that few dared to broach the subject again.

Having advised the government on town planning and airport development since before the handover, I took a stroll through the history of retired and rejected ideas to seek inspiration for some outside-the-box thinking. Here are two that seem particularly promising.

A little historical perspective is what is needed for coming up with workable ideas for old problems

The first idea pertains to a strategy for managing the city's existing land resources for residential development. Anyone with a "walking knowledge" of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon could easily name different areas that have an overabundance of older buildings begging to be torn down. Think Kowloon City, Sham Shui Po and North Point. Even though many older buildings in these districts have no obvious conservation value from an architectural point of view, they seem to have attracted little interest from private developers or the Urban Renewal Authority. Why might that be?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is just dollars and cents. These ignored older buildings were developed in the 1950s and 1960s according to different standards, which allowed for a much higher density than the plot ratio applicable today. This means the compensation needed to be paid by a private developer or the URA would be too high for such projects to break even, let alone produce a profit.

For exactly the opposite reason, much newer buildings were or will be torn down for redevelopment. Examples include the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Central, Sunning Plaza/Court in Causeway Bay, Somerset House in Quarry Bay, and many others. For whatever reason, the sites on which these newer buildings sit either offer unexploited plot ratio or would command substantially increased rental income should the physical building be upgraded.

Without any prospects for redevelopment, buildings in Sham Shui Po and other districts have become dilapidated and pose a safety risk. The government must come up with a strategy to unlock the development potential of these lands.

A now retired practice of land exchange could be redeployed to help solve this problem. Before 1983, the government issued what were then known as "Letter A" and "Letter B" entitlements when acquiring private land in the New Territories for public purposes. These gave their holders the right to be granted government land at a future date, and were even accepted by the government in lieu of cash in some land transactions.

This approach could be easily adapted for decanting old urban neighbourhoods. Instead of land rights, the government could attach to the building units certain development rights, which would then be bought by developers for paying transactions concerning other sites.

The government could then use such decanted sites to enable road widening or fill "planning deficits" by providing open space and other public amenities. This system would effectively enable urban renewal.

An exchange of development rights could also be adapted to partially defuse another hot issue - the government's commitments under the small-house policy. As the number of outstanding small house applications now stands at over 10,000 and growing, it is critical for the government to discharge these commitments so that land reserved for small houses can be released for higher density developments.

It is an open secret that developers already collect "rights" from eligible indigenous males for developing larger housing complexes targeting expats and non- indigenous buyers. We might as well find a way to turn a headache into part of the cocktail of solutions.

In addition to managing developable land, the government also needs to look at ways of creating land. From the scrapheap of rejected proposals, we dug up one idea that might be suitable.

In the 1990s, there was an idea to build a road to connect Kennedy Town across the subsequently abandoned Green Island reclamation to north Lantau. This was to be part of the original vision for Route 10 connecting western Hong Kong through northwestern Lantau to Yuen Long.

While the idea of reclaiming Green Island, with its proximity to Victoria Harbour, would probably incite even more opposition from environmentalists than before, the thought of connecting Hong Kong Island and Lantau remains intriguing, given the inevitable increase in traffic through Lantau once the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge opens.

But what does this have to do with creating land for housing? The answer lies in reclaiming land for housing along the path between Hong Kong and Lantau. The idea from before the handover was to build a road that passes through the proposed Kau Yi Chau reclamation.

Part of the original proposal was to connect Kau Yi Chau, an uninhabited island between Green Island and Peng Chau, to a smaller island to its west, Siu Kau Yi Chau.

One concern that doomed the project was that visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland would be turned off by the sight of huge cranes and stacks of containers. Surely the same could not be said for housing developments, even if these do not match the look of the "magic kingdom".

Reclaimed land offers the advantage of planning flexibility in striking the proper balance between public and private housing, and developing needed community and traffic infrastructure.

Equally significant, developing Kau Yi Chau allows for the development of a Hong Kong-Lantau link that gives travellers a more direct route to Hong Kong Island. Such a link would effectively give Hong Kong a "ring route" connecting Hong Kong, Lantau and Kowloon/New Territories.

A little historical perspective is often just what is needed to come up with workable ideas for old problems - and there is certainly none older than inadequate housing.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Out of the box