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Can Lantau go both ways?

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Prime land to provide essential housing for Hong Kong’s growing population, or a bucolic idyll to be preserved and saved in its existing state?

Ongoing and proposed developmental plans for North and South Lantau are coming down on the side of accelerated change.

Lantau is undergoing huge changes, some for better and some for worse. South Lantau looms as the area likely to be affected the most, with its rural lifestyle under threat. Locals are worried that the government is approving development and implementing measures without a proper strategy and without fully researching their possible impact on the area. On the other hand, North Lantau is growing exponentially and developing into a crucial contributor to Hong Kong’s economy, something that can only be considered a positive.

The burning question is whether North Lantau can continue its massive transformation into the gateway to Hong Kong while, at the same time, South Lantau can find a way to retain its bucolic identity.

South Lantau development

As it stands, South Lantau’s roads are at capacity, there is a severe lack of parking space, taxis are near impossible to get and the public transport system is struggling to cope, especially on weekends. Another issue is the ever increasing internal demand for Lantau Closed Road Permits, driven by continued development, particularly in Mui Wo.

“Lantau’s transport system is imploding,” South Lantau resident Robert Clark says in his blog, Lantau Confidential. “Buses, ferries, taxis, roads and car parks are at breaking point on most days and overwhelmed on public holidays.”

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong Transport Department (HKTD) has proposed allowing 50 private cars and 20 more tour coaches on South Lantau’s roads on weekdays, something it will make a decision on later in the year.

In her letter to the South China Morning Post on August 17, Irene Ho, assistant commissioner for transport (New Territories), says the “mild relaxations” will help to promote tourism and other developments in the area, while not having an “unacceptable adverse impact on the environment, road safety and the general livelihood of the residents”. Try telling that to South Lantau residents, who are worried an initial relaxation of the rules will lead to greater allowances in the future.

“The concept of, Monday to Friday, letting a whole bunch of strangers in, it’s absurd,” resident Jacqui Green says. “On top of the congestion issues, if you knew these roads like I do, you wouldn’t want strangers coming in and using them because they don’t know them. It’s going to be dangerous.”

There is also the issue of people abusing the closed road permit system and the fact that resources are stretched to a point where restricted roads cannot be policed adequately. Even when they are, few regard the current fine as a deterrent.

“Basically there are day trippers and if they are only going to be fined HK$300 for being able to drive to South Lantau, it’s like going to Hong Kong Disneyland for a day with a family pass, or even less,” Living Islands Movement’s Merrin Pearse says.

Finding a solution

On a positive note, newly appointed head of Lantau South Police, chief inspector David Neil Bennett, has identified that there is an issue of road safety/ congestion and he is doing everything in his power to address it. Measures include speed management and monitoring parking.

“We are trying to meet the challenges of development, but at the same time make it safe,” David says.

A number of different ideas have been suggested by South Lantau residents to alleviate the current situation. These range from more buses, to buses specially designated to go just to the tourist areas at Ngong Ping and Tai O. An increased ferry service to include places such as Cheung Sha and Tong Fuk has been floated, as has increasing the regularity of the Tung Chung to Tai O ferry.

An obvious way to halt closed road permit abusers is to monitor the Tung Chung end of the Tung Chung Road, while the Development Bureau has suggested extending the Ngong Ping cable car to Tai O, which will get people off the roads, but could see Tai O becoming over run. Furthermore, the widening of roads has been touted as a way to at least make the roads safer, if not less populated.

Some good news for South Lantau residents is that, according to Merrin, the HKTD is currently looking at possible solutions. “The HKTD is in a bit of a squash from the development side and hasn’t really been able to get in to it with enough studies, detailing what could really solve the problem,” Merrin, a South Lantau resident, says. “But I think there is pressure to go to the community and find out what the real needs are.”

With more and more cars coming into South Lantau, and car parks already at capacity, illegal and dangerous parking has become an issue. Looking forward, the Mui Wo Home Ownership Scheme, due to be completed within the next two to three years, will add between 2,000 and 2,500 people to the existing population of Mui Wo, and any number of cars. To address the problem of parking, Islands District Council is exploring the viability of building a multi-storey car park in Mui Wo.

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Latest proposal

A proposal first slated by CY Leung in his Annual Policy Address last year and officially released by the Planning Department on September 10, albeit only in Chinese, features a possible rail corridor connecting Tung Chung with Mui Wo and Hong Kong Island.

Gordon Andreassend, a long-time Hong Kong resident who worked as a land surveyor on Lantau as early as 1966, thinks an MTR line is a logical way to remove stress from the roads and other forms of public transport.

Logical maybe, but still shocking for some. What’s more, the proposed MTR line would connect with the East Lantau Metropolis (ELM), a business district requiring a large amount of land reclamation that could take shape in the coming decades. Many residents are wary of the effect that the development could have.

“The focus they are putting in the discussion at the moment is that it [the ELM] is going to be offshore between the Peng Chau and Hei Ling Chau area, but there is the little area in what we would call West Mui Wo near the home ownership development,” Merrin says. “If it is going to have an MTR station, you can imagine the scale of it could require taking back quite a few village areas and take what some of us were thinking was a small area that is currently open space into most of Mui Wo.”

North Lantau development

While a lot of South Lantau’s development proposals are in their infant stages, North Lantau is a hub of activity, with the construction of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HKZM), the reclaimed land for the bridge’s border crossing facilities and the Tuen Mun–Chek Lap Kok link all in progress. While the completion date of the bridge and the border-crossing facility, which looks set to feature an extensive commercial district, is still up in the air and the Tuen Mun link is not expected to be completed until late 2018, the Lantau Development Alliance (LaDA) is anticipating the positive effect these developments will have on Lantau.

“The development of new infrastructures will shorten the travelling time between Hong Kong and major Pearl River Delta cities and facilitate the flow of people, cargo and services, which will result in a vibrant and affluent market with unprecedented opportunities for business growth,” Enid Low, chief strategy officer of AsiaWorld-Expo Management, says. “Lantau will become an essential connecting point for journeys to and from Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau.”

A 2008 paper by the Legislative Council Panel on Transport estimates a daily flow on the HKZM of 50,000 vehicles and 240,000 passengers by 2035. Naturally, South Lantau residents are concerned about the flow-on effect that this may have. At this stage, Gordon says it is difficult to predict what impact the extra traffic will have, but he is hopeful that it won’t be too drastic.

When considering all the ongoing and proposed developments, the underlying issue is that the people of Lantau feel that they are unable to have a say about what is happening in their backyard. According to Robert, there has been no chance of engaging with the government on any of the issues facing South Lantau, and Merrin echoes his thoughts.

“With Living Islands Movement, we are not anti-development, we’re not stop all development, we’re just looking for sustainable, sensible development ideas,” Merrin says. “But it’s really hard to get involved as a member of the community. We tried to have a discussion with the town planning board when they did the new home ownership scheme but got nowhere. It’s the consultation process which is the most frustrating part in Hong Kong.”

Find it
• AsiaWorld-Expo, www.asiaworld-expo.com.hk
• Hong Kong Transport Department, www.td.gov.hk
• LaDa, www.lantau-da.com.hk
• Lantau Confidential, www.lantauconfidential.com
• Living Islands Movement, www.livingislands.org.hk

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