The government’s much-criticised scheme to build a massive new business and housing district on 1700ha of reclaimed land in waters off Lantau is certain to go ahead.
In her annual policy address on Wednesday chief executive Carrie Lam vowed to proceed with the plan, currently estimated to cost HK$624 billion, making it the easily most expensive public works project in the city’s history.
The Legco Finance Committee, now dominated by pro-government members, began considering approval for the initial HK$550 million funding on Friday.
But in her speech Lam struck a defensive note, calling on people “to act in an objective and fair manner with the long-term interests of Hong Kong in mind”
This is a departure from her government’s longstanding claim of wide public support for the scheme.
Lam also vowed to “continue to listen to the views of various sectors of the community,” despite having rejected widely-held criticisms about the cost, the necessity and the ecological risks posed by the project.
Even pro-government legislators are querying it, with more than 20 lodging questions about the project. They are also determined not to appear in a rush to approve the funding application, scmp.com reports.
One pro-Beijing lawmaker, Wong Kwok-kin, a member of Lam’s cabinet, complained about the public backlash they will face for voting for Lantau Tomorrow.
Appearing before Legco on Friday, Development Secretary Michael Wong faced questioning about the cost and viability, the likelihood of delays, and protection of country parks.
“We can’t issue a blank cheque and just allow you to proceed with the study and all the steps subsequent to it. We need to be careful about every penny spent,” Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, of the Business and Professionals Alliance according to scmp.com.
Wong was also asked whether reclamation was a better option than building in country parks, which account for around two-thirds of SAR land.
He said there was little support for building in parks and that it would take additional legislation.
But in a comment that carries some significance for Lantau residents, Wong downplayed the second phase of the scheme, which envisages a 700ha reclamation around Hei Ling Chau, just off Mui Wo.
Without elaborating, he described the initial phase of 1,000 ha reclamation around Kau Yi Chau as the “real” component of the project, and the second 700 ha phase of Hei Ling Chau as “virtual.”
Tom Yam of the Citizens Task Force for Land Resources has accused the government of “magical thinking” in believing the project would help solve short-term housing needs and that it will be ready by 2033.
Yam points out that government’s own forecasts anticipate the city’s population to start falling from a peak of 8.1 million from 2041.
He said the government had already identified 1400 ha in land from brownfield sites in the New Territories, while land developers had warehoused a further 1000ha.
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A second government department has confirmed that the vacant Mui Wo school site is being considered for housing development.
Planning Department director Raymond Lee says the site has been recommended as “suitable for long-term residential use.”
In a letter to Tom Yam of the Citizens Task Force on Land Resources, Lee said that the site, which has been out of use since 2007, is one of a number of former schools being reviewed.
He said the decision to designate it for potential housing development had been announced in early 2020.
But it would be “premature” to conduct any public consultation as the feasibility study is still underway, he added.
He said the proposed housing scheme, if approved, would not conflict with the Mui Wo Facelift programme, now in its final stage.
The scheme to build public housing on the old school, formally known as the New Territories Heung Yee Kuk (NYTHYK) Southern District Secondary School, was revealed in August by KH Tau, assistant director of the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD).
Tau disclosed that the department had issued an HK$11 million contract to engineering firm Aecom for a feasibility study in April 2019. It is due to report in early 2021.
Tau said that both the NYTHYK site and the adjacent public car park were being evaluated for public housing.
Yam estimates that the site would sustain a plot size of 7,000 to 8,000 sq m which would support between 700 to 1,500 apartments and a potential population increase of 2,000 to 4,000.
He believes the proposal for high-density housing breaches planning guidelines that stipulate taking into consideration the surrounding land use and planning intentions.
A Planning Department list of school sites under evaluation shows that the city has 234 abandoned schools, of which 181 are recommended to remain as a “government/institution/community (GIC) facility” and 26 are proposed for residential use.
The remaining 27 are former village schools in the New Territories that are “recommended for retaining their uses as village type development, rural use, open space, etc.”
Lee did not explain why the Mui Wo school site has been “earmarked for residential use,” rather than retained as public space like the New Territories village schools.
It is worth noting that the Planning Department is only concerned with the school site itself and not the car park.
The inclusion of Mui Wo’s biggest car park as a potential development site was a decision taken by the CEDD when setting up the feasibility study.
Randy Yu , Islands District Council chairman and south Lantau representative on the council, says he is uncertain of the status of the project.
“The answers I get from different departments are still sketchy. In any case, I was given to understand that the plan is not definite.”
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The Hong Kong government is planning to build public housing for as many as 4000 people on the old Mui Wo high school site and the adjacent car park.
The scheme appears to sideline the decade-long Mui Wo Facelift project and threatens to drastically change the character of the village as well as put further strain on transport and parking resources.
The Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) appointed US engineering firm Aecom to conduct a feasibility study in April 2019, but has made no announcements and has not presented it to the district council.
It remained unknown to Lantau residents until it was confirmed in a letter from CEDD assistant director KH Tau last month to Fung Siuyin, a staffer in the office of Eddie Chu and former district council candidate.
The secretive process also points to the potentially conflicted role of Lantau district councillor Randy Yu.
The school, closed since 2007 and officially known as the Mui Wo New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School, is part-owned by peak rural body Heung Yee Kuk. Yu is a kuk councillor and his brother-in-law Kenneth Lau is chairman.
Yu has declined to respond to queries from Lantau News and local residents about the housing project.
It is not clear what role he has played in the project, whether the school has already been sold, and if so on what terms.
Tom Yam from the Citizens Task Force on Land Resources estimates that with a plot ratio of “about 7,000 to 8,000 sq m, the possible number of housing units can be in the range of 700 to 1,500, giving a population increase of 2,000 to 4,000.”
This would mean twice the population sharing the limited public space and transport services.
“If implemented, the character of Mui Wo will be drastically changed with all the implications on its infrastructure and various public service requirements.”
Fung Siuyin agreed the issues were the excessive scale of the project and the secrecy. She said it was too large a housing project in a small area.
She also questioned why the development would eliminate the village’s new car park, which provides about three-quarters of the parking in the pier area. “This is one of the craziest things about it, ” she said.
She said the lack of consultation excluded other community uses for the site, including primary or pre-school education or elderly care.
Since the school closed down 13 years ago a number of efforts have been made to re-use it. In 2009 a plan by the Education Bureau to lease it out to the Christian Zheng Sheng College for drug rehabilitation fell through after strong opposition from local residents.
Six years ago the bureau entertained offers from several schools, including the Buddhist Fat Ho Memorial School in Tai O, to take over the site, but for some reason it rejected them all.
Fung said an ex-principal of the school had proposed a Mui Wo education project to the bureau recently but had also been rejected. She said she would take this up with bureau officials.
In a letter to Planning Department director Raymond Lee, Yam said he applauded the efforts to convert a vacant school site to public housing.
“The government should have done so much earlier. This is not an objection to develop public housing in Mui Wo. This is a criticism of your planning process and failure to inform/consult the affected community until the community noticed activities in the vacant school and raised the question to CEDD.”
Yam points out that when the Planning Department reviewed vacant school sites across Hong Kong in early 2018 it did not identify the Mui Wo site for conversion to residential use.
Additionally, the Task Force on Land Supply report in February 2018 stressed that the Planning Department “should take into account various planning factors including the planning intention for these sites and the surrounding land uses and environment.”
Aecom, which was awarded an $11 million contract for the feasibility study, is a publicly-listed US firm much favoured by the Hong Kong government for major public works.
The real estate industry has climbed aboard the Guishan bandwagon, calling for reclamation that it says will house 800,000 and connect to Hong Kong via a bridge to Lantau.
In a report issued this week the Hong Kong Real Property Federation has called for joint development of Guishan and neighbouring islands by Hong Kong and Guangdong governments.
Guishan is about 4 km off Lantau’s western end, almost in the centre of the Pearl River mouth.
It is a part of Zhuhai city but, like other advocates. the federation calls for it to be leased to Hong Kong in the same way that Hengqin island on the west bank of the estuary is leased to Macau.
The HKRPF study proposes reclaiming Guishan and neighbouring clusters to the east and west, creating a total of 70 sq km that can house 800,000 people.
As with other advocate, it claims the island will be only a 30-minute ferry ride to Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, both roughly 40 km away. The current 15 km trip between Mui Wo and Central is 30 minutes.
The report says Guishan is the “centre of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” and is a logical site to re-house the Kwai Chung container terminal, backed by new road and railway connections to Lantau Island.
In a reprise of the ‘super-prison’ idea from the early 2000s, it also recommends shifting Hong Kong jails to Guishan and the current sites used for housing.
The group believes Dazhizhou and Xiaozhizhou islands to the southeast can become sites of “cultural innovation” and education, and Qingzhou and Sanjiaoshan to west for “technology and innovation.”
“Guishan Island is the best place to start if we want to develop new industries, attract global talents, improve the living environment of people, and to build greater industrial zones and industrial chains,” it said.
The Hong Kong government has taken a passive stance toward calls for a huge reclamation off south Lantau, with Development Secretary Michael Wong saying it won’t commit either way without a “concrete proposal.”
Replying to a Legco question from pro-government legislator Alice Mak last week, Wong said he was aware of discussions about creating land for Hong Kong through reclamation in mainland China waters.
But he said the government would not take a position on suggestions – mostly from DAB politicians – to reclaim land around the island of Guishan, in mainland waters about 5km off Lantau’s most southerly point.
“In the absence of a more concrete proposal, the government is not in a position to make specific response at the moment,” Wong said.
The Guishan scheme is reportedly under consideration by Beijing as a means of adding to the land supply and helping kick-start the Hong Kong economy.
But Wong’s reply suggests that the government is either waiting for mainland officials to come up with a proposal, or that it would not make any move until given some direction by Beijing.
Wong adds that the government is open to “suggestions that could help relieve the land shortage,” but also makes it clear that it has no thought of taking action itself.
This continues a pattern seen in other major public works such as the HK$119 billion HK-Macau bridge, the HK$83 billion West Kowloon rail terminus and the HK$624 billion Lantau Tomorrow Vision, all driven strongly by Beijing.
The Guishan reclamation scheme was raised by DAB members during the recent NPC session in Beijing.
Pro-Beijing politicians and others since offered multiple ideas on how Guishan could be developed.
At a recent roundtable discussion, Leung Che-cheung, Legco member for New Territories West, which includes Lantau, pointed out that the unpopular Lantau Tomorrow scheme has not even been funded and would take at least a decade to complete, Ming Pao reported.
He said Guishan could provide 1,000 hectares of land, enough to accommodate 200,000 households and house new industries.
Tony Tse, the Legco member for the architecture sector, said Guishan could be a site for public housing and university facilities and prisons. Its position in the centre of the Greater Bay Area meant the Kwai Chung container terminal could be relocated there.
Despite its location far from any urban area, Guishan advocates have not spent much time discussing transport arrangements.
Leung said the island would be just “20 minutes” away from Central by high-speed ferry. He also called for construction of a connecting bridge from Guishan to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, 20km away.
The government is making a last-minute bit to win approval for the contentious Lantau Tomorrow Vision reclamation ahead of the Legco election.
Its funding request has been squeezed into the Legco finance committee agenda this Friday – the last sitting day ahead of the September 6 poll.
The government is seeking HK$550.4 million for a consultancy study into site evaluation around Kau Yi Chau and to examine transport infrastructure needs for stage one of the project.
It is the initial funding for a scheme forecast to cost HK$624 billion for the first stage alone — the city’s biggest ever construction project.
But the project is widely unpopular because of its cost and scale, the weak case for it and the presence around the city of many other white elephant public works such as the HK-Macau bridge.
The request, initially filed last year, was not voted on as a result of the democrat filibuster. It was foreshadowed by Development Secretary Michael Wong in his blog two weeks ago and then reappeared on the finance committee agenda early this week, surprising legislators and and media.
But approval seems a long way from being assured. Finance committee chair Chan Kinpor admitted to Oriental Daily yesterday it was unlikely to be passed.
Liberal Party legislator Felix Chung told HK01 last week that in the current political environment the Lantau Tomorrow plan may not be implemented at all.
The government fears it may lost control of Legco in the coming election. Pro-democracy groups overwhelmed government parties in last year’s district council election, and a primary among pro-democracy candidates on the weekend attracted more than 600,000 voters – equivalent to a fifth of total participation in the 2016 election.
Pro-Beijing parties have started to push an alternative, smaller scale reclamation on Guishan Island off southern Lantau.
Stage one of Lantau Tomorrow involves creating a 1200 ha artificial island around Kau Yi Chau, with freeway and rail links connecting to Lantau and Hong Kong islands.
A second stage, which is not part of this feasibility study, envisages creating another 500ha artificial island around Hei Ling Chau and Sunshine Island off Mui Wo.
The central government is reported to be planning another massive reclamation project near Lantau, this time on Guishan Island off the island’s southern tip.
The idea was put forward by DAB members of the Hong Kong delegation to China’s ‘two sessions’ last month, although it was originally proposed by Regina Ip’s New People’s Party in 2018.
It is one of a number of proposals being considered by communist party leaders to “support Hong Kong” after the implementation of the national security law, sources told HK01.
“According to preliminary estimates, the shallow water area can provide at least an additional 1,000 hectares of land, which is sufficient for large-scale planning and development. If 20% of the land is used for residential purposes, it will provide 160,000 to 200,000 units”
The island lies about 2km southwest of Fan Lau, Lantau’s most southern point, and belongs to to Zhuhai city.
The DAB proposal suggests adopting the ‘Hengqin model,’ referring to a Macau real estate project on an island leased from the Zhuhai government.
Regina Ip told HK01 she hadn’t heard of the central government interest in Guishan, but says she had told mainland officials that it was a better idea than the Lantau Tomorrow Vision (LTV) scheme in Hong Kong central waters.
It is a much more modest proposal than the 1700-hectare LTV, the biggest project in Hong Kong’s history. It encompasses public and private housing and a new central business district and would connect with Hong Kong Island and the Shenzhen border by freeway and rail connections.
By contrast, the Guishan backers envisage connecting to Central by a “30 to 45 minute” ferry ride.
But that raises the spectre of another Tin Shui Wai, the remote new town in northwest New Territories plagued by unemployment and other social problems because of its distance from services and jobs.
The LTV scheme is estimated to cost HK$624 billion for the first 1200ha- stage alone. Legco is yet to approve a government request for HK$550 million for a feasibility study.
Tong Fuk has become the latest Lantau village to suffer from unauthorised land clearance, a result of the vague planning laws and lack of enforcement that have plagued the rest of the island.
In the last three years, reclamation work has claimed hundreds of square metres of greenbelt between Tong Fuk village and the oceanfront, HK01 has reported.
The original work created a car park but has continued well into the adjacent green space, a cattle habitat and recreation area that also hosts the annual poon choi banquet.
The reclamation intrudes onto government land but the developers have ignored Lands Department warnings to halt work.
As with the rapidly-disappearing Pui O wetland, the entire zone between South Lantau Road and the beachfront is designated Coastal Protection Area (CPA) – but no planning or environmental laws exist to provide any actual protection.
Local conservation group Save Lantau Alliance wrote to the Sustainable Lantau Office and other departments about the unauthorised development, HK01 reported.
The Planning Department confirmed that the site is zoned CPA, which means any land filling or development work requires permission from the Town Planning Board (TPB). It said no development application for a car park or landfill had been received.
But planning agencies exercise their powers through the development approval process, which has never covered Tong Fuk or other villages on South Lantau Road, so they have no power to influence or stop any development.
As the Planning Dept said: “There is no regulatory authority there.”
The private-held portion of land belongs to a Mui Wo-registered company called Yuky Co. Ltd (耀崎有限公司), according to HK01.
A 1980s court case involving the late Heung Yee Kuk strongman Lau Wongfat found that the government cannot enforce planning laws on privately-held agricultural land.
Fung Siu Yin is the challenger in Sunday’s district council poll and a part of a new face in local politics.
Standing for the Lantau seat, she is pro-democratic, green and a member of a new group called Islands Connect, which is ensuring that for the first time democrats contest seats in all four islands in the district.
Fung, 33, has lived in Tung Chung for 20 years. She has worked as a Legco research assistant for the past eight years, and is currently on Eddie Chu Hoi-dick’s staff.
She opposes Lantau Tomorrow Vision, which she says has had scant scrutiny from the council. If elected she would call public hearings across Lantau to debate the project.
She has also done a good deal of work on public transport issues, finding that South Lantau residents object to the Sunday fare hikes and want to see more frequent services of both bus and ferry.
Having spent her early career working on senior and social welfare issues, she also advocates expanding community centres and medical services for the elderly and wants to set aside land for a retiree-run community farm.
The vacant Mui Wo high school, the wetlands and the Mui Wo improvement works are also high on her agenda.
Here is a condensed version of Lantau News’ interview with Siu Yin.
Why are you running for District Council?
I have lived in Tung Chung for about 20 years. In 2014 I knew we had big developments coming into Lantau. From that we tried to have some education and oral history documentation to tell people what would happen.
In 2018, the Lantau Tomorrow Vision was announced. In those four years, I had learnt more about Lantau people, and we know more about their needs. There were many problems with elderly citizens, and some education needs.
In our group, Save Lantau Alliance, we discussed the elections and we wanted to have a role, to have more debate in the community to talk about what we want for Lantau’s future. That’s why we are running for election this year.
How do you see the role of the district council?
They get a lot of information from the government, and the government often consults with them on education, bus services, medical services, etc.
The councillors also can vote for the chief executive and one of them can be elected to Legco. They can meet with different government departments, they can share their ideas. They have many ways to work with the government.
You talk about reforming the district council. What would you do?
The Islands District Council has 18 members, including eight ex officio. So many people don’t have a voice. So we want to open a platform. We want the residents in the Lantau community, who care about the community, they can voice out.
For example, the bus company wanted to increase bus fares. They just informed the district council but most Lantau people didn’t know. In May we did a street survey. We found more than 68% of people didn’t know the bus company was applying to increase the fare.
We will have social media channels, like Facebook or WhatsApp. Give people many channels to share their opinions. We think if the district councils are working, then there will be less anger in the community.
Can district councils do anything to address the current political crisis?
We can open many forums to discuss what people are ask for. Is it reasonable or not reasonable, what is the meaning of the five demands, and so on. Because now you are blue, I am yellow, we are totally divided into two colours and we don’t want to talk to each other. It’s not a healthy relationship.
Lantau Tomorrow Vision is a huge project and the government seems determined to build it. What can you do in the district council?
If we can get to District Council, we will have an agenda item to discuss Lantau Tomorrow Vision. We want to have a public hearing. It’s not local to Central, so we will have public hearings in Lantau – in Mui Wo, Tai O, and so on, and we can hear people’s opinions.
How to help Lantau’s senior population?
Lantau has a population of about 24,000, of which about 7,000-8,000 are over 50. But we have just one elderly home in Mui Wo. Two years ago, the home in Tai O closed.
The medical system is very important for them. We have just two clinics, with a limited service level, in Mui Wo and Tai O. It’s not enough. Also in Mui Wo the population has risen to more than 6,000. That’s why we ask the clinic employ two doctors, now just one.
We ask for community support service for the elderly. Some of them need help in cooking and cleaning, so they can live in their homes. We would like to set up community care services where they go to people’s homes, help cook and clean.
We also need community centres for the elderly, where they can read newspapers, sing together, have some health checks.
Right now we have a small centre in Mui Wo. In Tai O – nothing. In South Lantau – zero. NGOs provide services from Tung Chung, but that’s not reasonable. So that is why we hope to have centres in South Lantau and Tai O.
Also, elderly people feel bored. They say they would like to have a community garden. They know how to farm. They can raise chickens; chickens can eat waste food that humans won’t eat.
They can provide value in return – food, recycling, education for young people as well. So they become teachers. It’s more positive, right?
What is the status of the Mui Wo school?
The school [the New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School] has been closed for 12 years. We want to re-use the school for the elderly services, medical service and also education services – for kindergarten, primary school – so it is not wasted.
In the last few months we have had communication with the residents. Many of the Mui Wo kids are under six years old. They are going to Tai O, Tung Chung or Tsuen Wan for kindergarten. We see here is a need in the community. We have an empty school – it’s a perfect match.
You have done some work on public transport issues. What have you found?
Two months ago we did a survey and held a forum.
For buses, the most important thing people are concerned about is service frequency. People also worry about the safety of the double decker buses. On the upper deck most of them don’t have seat belts. There’s no room for luggage upstairs, either, so they have to put their suitcases in the aisle. It’s dangerous.
For both bus and ferry, people want to cancel the extra charge for public holidays and Sundays. They think it’s not reasonable.
The government gives subsidies to ferry companies. We want to improve transparency and open up the financials of the ferry companies so we know how they are spending the subsidies.
People also care about frequency. We need more ferries at peak times. The bus and ferry companies and residents don’t have the chance to communicate. District council members can create a platform for us to talk – we can hold a meeting once every two months.
The government has made promises over the Pui O wetlands but has done nothing. How can you help protect the wetlands?
We have a law to protect the South Lantau wetlands and also to protect the buffalo. Two years ago the government agreed to update the law, but this year the Chief Executive Policy Address again failed to mention it.
I think district council members can raise this issue again.
In South Lantau and Mui Wo, we have different parties. One will love and care about the environment. They know the ecosystem is very important for the community. The second – they want more development. They have the intention to destroy the wetlands. They also have the intention to move the buffalo and cows.
The first party includes many of the residents. They love the buffalos and love the wetland, but they are scared to speak out. If district council members can collect people’s ideas about the wetlands and how to deal with problems of the buffalo and try to find a way to form a community consensus.
Also we have connections with the FEHD and the EPD, some of them are friends. We ask them what are the problems they face. Resources? Manpower? Rural party problems? We want to know what the problems are and try to find a way to protect the wetland and the buffalos.
I think education is very important. We have some residents who know a great deal about the cattle and buffalo and are willing to share. If more people know how to communicate with the animals and understand their behaviour, that will help.
What is the progress of the Mui Wo facelift?
They call it the Mui Wo improvement works. The first question is: improvements for whom? For tourists or residents?
When we saw the plan from 2017, we didn’t see improvement for residents. They moved the bicycle parking far away, and then moved the restaurants into the ferry pier building.
We collected some opinions. People really strongly disagree with moving the bike parking. It’s not convenient for them. But now the problem is not enough space. That’s why we have bicycles everywhere. So people suggest that we should extend the bike parking because more people are moving here.
So we asked the CEDD for more information. They told us the plan was made in 2017, but can change and they are considering changes. But they don’t think it will happen immediately – maybe it might take another five or ten years to finalise this stage.
For the residents we think that is good, so we have more time to discuss what we need. Hopefully more time to debate and more time for them to change their plan so it works for residents, not just tourists.
As if Hong Kong politics were not combustible enough: the contentious Lantau reclamation project is back.
The HK$624 billion scheme to build a new CBD on reclaimed land near Lantau is the biggest and costliest in Hong Kong’s history.
The government will go to the Legco Finance Committee this Friday to seek final approval for HK$550 million for the first stage of the project – planning and engineering studies.
Under the scheme the government plans to create 1200ha of land for premium office space and housing for up to 1 million people around Kau Yi Chau, an island halfway between Lantau and Hong Kong.
A second stage, yet to be studied, involves building a further 500ha near Hei Ling Chau, just off Mui Wo.
In a briefing paper, the CEDD said it required the funds to proceed
with the planning of the KYC [Kau Yi Chau] Artificial Islands, including the formulation of detailed land use proposals, as well as the road and rail connections linking the KYC Artificial Islands with Hong Kong Island, Northeast Lantau and coastal area of Tuen Mun.
If it begins on schedule the study would complete in mid-2023, the paper said.
The biggest costs in the study are the consultants’ fees for the artificial islands (HK$190 million) and for transport infrastructure (HK$160 million).