Development plans reached a seminal stage in June with the government’s release of the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint. Martin Lerigo of Living Islands Movement sums up the ongoing debate.
With just 1,600 square feet of land per inhabitant, Hong Kong is the fourth most densely populated territory on earth. This is what lies behind much of the friction and disquiet that often surrounds plans for land development. The recent jailing of activists, who opposed the government’s plans for a new town in the North East New Territories, was a reminder of the deep-rooted anger land-supply issues can evoke among large sections of the population. All the more reason why the government should tread carefully when it comes to its plans for developing the green jewel of Hong Kong: Lantau.
Numerous position papers and consultation exercises have taken place to date with regard to Lantau’s development, including Space for All and Vision 2030. To the casual observer these may well blur into one but it’s important to recognise that we have now reached a significant waymarker – the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint, which the government released in June. To the generous of spirit this is just the next stage of lengthy consultation; the government being at pains to stress there is plenty more opportunity for consultation and dialogue. For the more sceptical, however, the paper represents the government’s final plan, with only minor amendments likely to follow in the future.
Veterans of the campaign opposing the government’s plan to build a giant incinerator off the south coast of Lantau point to the production of a blueprint for that project being the stage at which meaningful consultation came to an end.
Development and conservation
The government held a public consultation meeting in Mui Wo on August 9 to review the contents of the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint and hear what the community had to say. Over 200 people attended what was the biggest such local event in recent years.
Representatives from the Civil Engineering and Development Department, the Development Bureau and Planning Department laid out the thinking of the government, with several members of the Lantau Development Advisory Committee (LanDAC) also present. Audience response varied from constituency to constituency. Rural Committee representatives were keen to hear about the potential for development, business and commerce. Environmental and conservation groups sought to understand how the government intends to make good on its promise to balance the needs of development with the needs of conservation.
Themed Development in the North and Conservation for the South, a key tenet of the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint is the development of North Lantau as a gateway to the Pearl River Delta and rest of the world; a so called bridgehead economy, linking Hong Kong to the array of international transport links and attendant commercial opportunities being developed within a 300-mile radius of Lantau. Key to this are the Three-Runway System, the nearly complete Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facilities Island.
With this will also come the provision of 200,000 new homes along the North Lantau shore from Tung Chung to Siu Ho Wan – the Tung Chung New Town Extension.
The second key tenet of the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint, and one of its most controversial, is the construction of an East Lantau Metropolis (ELM), reclaiming land around the islands of Kau Yi Chau and Hei Ling Chau to create a second business district and more than 700,000 new homes. A significant amount of new transport infrastructure is also outlined as part of this phase. The inclusion of Mui Wo as an element of the ELM – without any clear definition as to what this will mean in practice – leaves open the possibility of significant development in and around Mui Wo in the future.
Further tenets of the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint include the development of Sunny Bay and Hong Kong Disneyland for tourism.
The good news from a conservation standpoint is that at least some of the worst excesses suggested in the original development plan –the First-Term Work Report, published by LanDAC in January 2016 – have been dropped. A stargazing facility will not be built at the top of Sunset Peak, nor a funicular railway run up its eastern flank. Plans to develop sustainable recreational facilities in South Lantau, including a water sports centre, mountain bike trails, camping grounds, eco-education centres and an adventure park, remain, as do proposals to conserve ecologically important habitats and designate new marine parks.
In addition, the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint includes proposals to protect the Pui O wetlands, the mudflats at Shui Hau and Yi O, and mangroves at Tai O. There are also proposals to protect a number of heritage sites, such as Silvermine Cave, Fan Lau Fort and Yeung Hau Temple. Past experience suggests that all those who applaud such measures should do so cautiously until the finer detail emerges.
Questions and answers
Several leading questions came up during the meeting in Mui Wo on August 9. Notably, can the controversial ELM project be separated out as a project for consultation in its own right, given it is of a scale unprecedented for a generation, and its planned completion date is not until the 2040s. Is the government using the tactic of bundling all of this development into one project, in order to maximise the chance of pushing it through the consultation process? Government representatives rebutted this suggestion, saying that the ELM is part of the government’s overall vision for Lantau and that the plan must be viewed in the round.
How about the government’s bid for funding to set up a Lantau Development Office? Is this a cynical way to pursue the Development Bureau’s agenda without meaningful input from the Environmental Protection Department and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department? The Bureau’s somewhat vague response on this was that its officials and engineers have sufficient expertise to ensure conservation requirements are met. It was pointed out that Hong Kong is supposed to adhere to the International Convention on Biodiversity, which would require the whole development project for Lantau to be subject to various conditions. Silence from the government representatives on that one.
Some of the conservation objectives proposed in the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint cannot be achieved without land resumption (compulsory purchase) or land swaps, and the Development Bureau representatives were asked how this would be achieved. The response was that many of these objectives are aspirational and the detail of how to achieve them has yet to be worked out. However, the Development Bureau was at pains to point out that it has the government’s backing to pursue whatever options are necessary.
Several questions were asked about the future of Lantau’s cattle, particularly the Mui Wo herd. Rural Committee representatives voiced their desire to see the Mui Wo cows moved to the Soko Islands but such calls were matched by counter arguments from the cattle concern groups, who consider Lantau’s bovines an integral part of the community. The government representatives hedged their bets on this issue, saying they are seeking solutions as to how humans and cattle can co-exist in harmony.
All in all, the August 9 meeting saw a useful exchange of views although a straw poll afterwards suggested that most attendees felt the government representatives had not really said much and had failed to answer questions with any specific detail. Some felt that the meeting had been simply a tick-box exercise to enable the government to say it had fulfilled its duty to consult.
More consultation is promised in the future, including an indication from Islands District Council Member (South Lantau), Randy Yu that he will hold public surgeries for constituents to air their views. Now is the time for those who are concerned to get involved and lend their voice to the ongoing debate.