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Settlement hierarchy: What does the future hold for Lantau if the ELM goes ahead?

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Do you want to see a high-rise new town connected to Mui Wo swell its population to tens of thousands? Tom Yam of the ELM Concern Group pans the government’s plan for an East Lantau Metropolis.

If you love Lantau for its mountain and coastal vistas, forest trails, sandy beaches, low population density, rich history, sleepy old villages and wetlands where buffalo roam, enjoy them while you can. You have some time before this natural refuge from Hong Kong’s concrete jungle is transformed into… another concrete jungle.

The concrete, if proposals go ahead, will cover 1,000 hectares reclaimed from the sea around the islets of Heiling Chau and Kau Yi Chau east of Lantau, which will be connected to Mui Wo on South Lantau to create the gigantic East Lantau Metropolis (ELM).

east lantau metropolis

Is HK$400 billion too high a price to pay?

ELM will be a high-rise new town and business district with MTR stations, malls, housing and infrastructure for a projected population of 400,000 to 700,000. (Mui Wo’s current population of 5,500 will swell to tens of thousands.) Bridges or tunnels and railways totalling 29 kilometres will link ELM with the rest of Lantau, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The total cost, estimated from real expenditure on previous and current large-scale infrastructure projects, will be over HK$400 billion, exceeding the combined costs of the third airport runway, high-speed train to Guangzhou and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. That will make ELM the most expensive development project in Hong Kong’s history. The government is seeking HK$248 million from LegCo to fund a feasibility study.

Since former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced the plan in his January 2014 policy address, the government has seen ELM as a solution to Hong Kong’s land and housing shortage. The plan was rubber-stamped last month by the new Task Force on Land Supply, convened by the government to consider reclamation as a means to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs.

Will ELM address the housing crisis?

If ELM proceeds, it will take at least 30 years to be ready for population intake (though the construction will start years earlier). So in the short term, it will not alleviate the problems of unaffordable housing, the long wait for public housing, or the dire living conditions in partitioned flats. But in the longer term it will lead to housing overcapacity.

If ELM and other housing developments are built as planned, Hong Kong will have the capacity to house over 9 million people. However, according to the Census and Statistics Department, our ageing population and low birth-rate means that the population will peak in 2043 at 8.22 million, decreasing to 7.8 million in 2064.

This suggests that ELM is not the solution to Hong Kong’s current housing problem and is not necessary in the long term. Should we really be destroying a natural environment at the cost of HK$400 billion when that money could be spent on healthcare, education and other pressing social needs?

east lantau metropolis

Do Hong Kong people support ELM?

Two rigorous public consultations have already shown public opposition to land reclamation and ELM. In a 2011-2013 survey on strategic land supply, 46.4 percent opposed reclamation, while 33.6 percent supported it. The survey was based on proper statistical sampling methodology with a 95 percent confidence interval and the sample population chosen randomly, reflecting the population as a whole.

In a 2016 public opinion survey on Lantau’s development, 51.2 percent opposed ELM and 31.6 percent supported it. Regardless, the government included ELM in the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint published in June.

It’s three years since ELM was announced, and the government has yet to answer in any detail basic questions such as the need for it, the estimated cost and the risks of rising sea levels, resorting instead to vague, feel-good buzzwords such as ‘space for all,’ ‘sustainable development’ and ‘green tourism.’

east lantau metropolis

Residents of Mui Wo and South Lantau, which will be directly impacted by ELM, have repeatedly asked government departments for meetings at which they can voice their concerns and give input. Three years on, on March 22, representatives from the Planning Department came to Mui Wo to present the government’s development plan, dubbed 2030+, which includes ELM.

The event was not well publicised, and it was held on a Wednesday evening at a time when many residents were commuting home from work. With most residents unaware of or unable to attend the meeting, it was packed with members of the pro-development rural committees. When the session came to a close, government representatives could claim that Lantau residents support 2030+.

Are Lantauers getting sufficient representation?

So what can Hong Kong citizens, and specifically Lantau residents, do if they want to prevent Lantau from becoming another concrete jungle?

In brief, get organised, tell your family and friends. Lobby government officials, legislators and district councillors. Ask them to deny the government funding for the ELM feasibility study.

At the South Lantau level, residents need to change the dynamics of decision-making on matters that affect their community, environment and welfare.

Traditionally, issues affecting South Lantau have been deliberated and decided by the four rural committees: the Mui Wo Rural Committee, South Lantau Rural Committee, Tai O Rural Committee and Tung Chung Rural Committee. With changing demographics and an increasingly diverse population on Lantau, our district councillors should reach out beyond the rural committees and regularly inform this wider community, seek more representative views and reflect them to the government.

east lantau metropolis

If concrete starts pouring for ELM, don’t think you can escape to another island either. It’s also likely to be a target for reclamation. Our Hong Kong Foundation, set up by former Chief Executive Tung Chee-wah, has proposed that 2,200 hectares be reclaimed off south Cheung Chau. This proposal has already been tabled to the government-appointed Task Force on Land Supply, which is identifying land for reclamation. The foundation is also proposing reclamation off Lamma and Po Toi.

If we don’t make our voices heard, no one should be surprised when these proposals are accepted too.

ELM Concern Group, comprising 20 civic, environmental and professional groups, was set up in 2016 to oppose the East Lantau Metropolis plan. To get involved, visit the ELMConcernGroup Facebook page, or email Tom Yam at [email protected]

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