(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2002-11-21 )
With many debating whether the latest government measures will work to prop up property prices, it is strange that a quiet push by the government to release a not-insignificant area of land for development has gone unnoticed. Without judging the merits of the government's stated objective on property prices, this move will arguably have an effect opposite to what the government says it wants.
Thanks to an inquiry by the Worldwide Fund for Nature ( Hong Kong ), the Planning Department revealed in July that it had completed an internal review last year recommending that development rights, up to a plot ratio of 0.4, be granted to about 1,400 hectares of land classified as agricultural or designated for recreational use.
Before the review was even made known to the public, the department started implementing its recommendations by gazetting on June 28 the rezoning of a site in Tai Tong to a new category called Other Specific Use (Rural Use). The rezoning grants the owner a previously non-existent development right on a piece of agricultural land.
The most damaging effect of this little known and little debated policy will manifest itself not in property prices but in the long-term future of the New Territories ' rural landscape. If the policy is carried out to the full, Hong Kong people may see the rural character of the New Territories disappeared in a decade or two, whether or not there is a need for such development.
While nobody, including green groups, objects to well-considered development that caters for economic and social needs, a wholesale push for developing agricultural land is another matter.
The government justifies the policy on the grounds that a lot of agricultural land has become degraded over the years through neglect or the violation of zoning conditions. The best solution, the review proposes, is to reward the low-grade land's hopefully conscientious owners with development rights so that these sites can retain some undefined rural character.
It is not hard to see that the policy creates a new polluter-gains principle. While it is encouraging to find that the government has such strong faith in human integrity, especially the integrity of the landed class, it is unclear whether this new principle will enhance Hong Kong 's claim to be a ''world city''.
For those Hongkongers who live in the real world, it is safe to predict that once this new principle is adopted, more, if not all, agricultural land will become low-grade - whether by accident or by design. When that day comes, the rural character of the New Territories , together with the many sites of conservation and heritage value now in private hands, will be gone forever.
Is this what Hong Kong really wants?
It is surprising that the public has not been consulted. The Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, pledged his allegiance to the principle of sustainable development as early as 1999 in his policy address.
Paragraph 119 of the Implementation Plan adopted at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg calls on governments to ensure access to environmental information and judicial and administrative proceedings in environmental matters, as well as public participation in decision-making.
The lack of public participation in this review casts doubt on the government's commitment to good public governance.
It is particularly unfortunate that the government's push for the implementation of the review's recommendations comes ahead of the completion of three important reviews being conducted on conservation policy, population policy and the small-house policy - that unsustainable policy of giving descendants of indigenous villagers entitlements to development land in perpetuity.
Each of these reviews may render the recommendations of the rural land use review inappropriate, or unnecessary. Is the government deliberately trying to pre-empt their findings, or is it a lack of co-ordination? Either way, the public deserves an explanation.
Ironically, the same names come up on both sides of the ultimate equation: who gains and who loses in the rural land review. Beneficiaries include land owners and developers who will enjoy a rise in the value of their agricultural land; and the government, whose coffers will be boosted by land conversion premiums over the years to come. Losers, in addition to the public, include developers, who will face further falls in property prices because of greater land supply, and the government, whose latest housing policy and commitment to sustainable development will lose credibility.
Beyond the policy confusion lies one big question: what do we Hong Kongers want the New Territories to be like? Do we want to maintain their rural character? Do we want them rezoned for development, even if there is no need for housing - as at present - or there is a better way to accommodate new housing needs, such as well-planned new towns? Do we want to enhance both the conservation and socio-economic value of the land with innovative measures and strive to become a model city of sustainable development?
Instead of taking a negative approach, 11 environmental groups have joined forces in a position paper to the government outlining a constructive framework for strategic planning, sustainable development and conservation in the New Territories . We all reckon a solution needs to be found, but it will not be found among misguided principles, a lack of transparency and a lack of political will.
With a concerted effort, Hong Kong can still become a model of sustainable development. It is not too late for the Planning Department to withdraw the review and start afresh. What we need is to encourage innovation and foster partnership and trust to tackle entrenched, difficult issues.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Conservancy Association.