Refining consultation process key to addressing housing shortage
This article appeared originally in the EJ Insight on April 20, 2022
Authors: Ryan Ip, Research Director and Head of Land & Housing Research, and Jacqueline Hui, Researcher of Land & Housing at Our Hong Kong Foundation.
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Burdened by the housing shortage, Hong Kong has been dubbed the least affordable housing market for 12 consecutive years, with the waiting time for public housing reaching its record high at 6 years. Increasing housing supply has always been a pressing issue uppermost in the minds of our citizens. Despite the commencement of several large-scale land supply projects, including Kwu Tung North/Fanling North (KTN/FLN), Hung Shui Kiu (HSK) and Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands, land development takes years and it often spans over a decade for a batch of developable land to be ready for construction. How many decades are there in one’s life? Therefore, it is of paramount importance to streamline the development process and expedite land supply. Meanwhile, the legislative proposals for development-related statutory processes announced by the Development Bureau earlier have sparked public discussion.
14 years up from planning to supplying spade-ready sites
Prior to discussing how to streamline the development process, a comprehensive understanding of land development procedures is fundamental. Take large-scale development projects as an example. Planning studies are first conducted to shortlist locations suitable for large-scale urban development based on geographical conditions. Funding approval will then be sought from the Legislative Council to conduct feasibility studies regarding planning and technical issues, preliminary investigative works and relevant environmental impact assessments (EIAs). Simultaneously, the Government invites public participation through consulting District Councils, local residents, professional groups and other stakeholders. After multiple rounds of consultation, a Revised Recommended Outline Development Plan (RODP) will be issued to indicate the land use along with development parameters, such as development boundaries, population, and housing units. Subsequently, the Government undergoes the statutory town planning process to reflect the RODP on statutory plans in the concerned districts. All these preliminary planning procedures alone take 5-8 years.
Thereafter, for new development areas (NDAs) in the New Territories, private land resumption and government land clearance usually take 4 years, including compensation to landowners and relocation of occupants such as squatters, farmers and business operators. For reclamation projects, construction works can begin after town planning procedures. Generally speaking, site investigation and detailed designing are conducted simultaneously during land resumption or reclamation. Upon the completion of land clearance in NDAs or reclamation works, site formation and infrastructure construction works follow, turning the land into a spade-ready site suitable for superstructure works. Relevant works cover land decontamination, road construction, electrical and mechanical matters, water supply and sewage discharge, spanning around 5 years. Finally, the land can then be passed to the Housing Authority or Housing Society to construct public housing; alternatively, it can be sold to developers for private residential development.
In other words, it takes at least 14 years from planning to the supply of the first batch of spade-ready sites for large-scale developments. KTN/FLN and HSK NDAs are vivid examples. Being revived in the 2007 Policy Address, the former takes 16 years of development and will only receive the first batch of residents in 2023, while the latter even takes one more year. In fact, individual public housing and private residential projects are equally time-consuming. It generally takes more than 10 years to complete such development on non-spade-ready sites. Given the lengthy development process, it is evident that the Government should review whether there are redundant or repetitive procedures to be simplified, so that our citizens’ yearning for speedy land supply can be satisfied.
Overlapping procedures due to various statutory requirements
Overlapping consultation is a clear example of redundant procedures. As mentioned above, NDA projects involve several rounds of public engagement, allowing citizens to voice their opinions regarding planning visions and land use. The same project then undergoes consultation again as specified by the town planning process, EIA procedures and other ordinances. For instance, 3 phases of community participation were conducted in 2008-2012 for KTN/FLN before the RODP was finalised in 2013. Although such a comprehensive consultation should have effectively gathered public opinion, the ensuing town planning process required consultation again.
Under the existing town planning process, the Town Planning Board (TPB) publicises a proposed draft plan for 2 months for representations, followed by the publication of representations for 3 weeks to invite public comments. Hearings of representations and comments will then be conducted. The TPB can make amendments according to the relevant representations and issue the proposed amendments for further representations by any person to indicate support or opposition. If adverse further representation is received, hearings of further representations will be conducted. KTN/FLN NDA was a case in point, which spent 1.5 years on the town planning process to handle the large number of representations.
Some are sceptical of the recommendation of streamlining the consultation process as it may deprive citizens of the chance to express their opinions in the town planning process. Undeniably, extensive public consultation is utterly important. However, the same project is repeatedly discussed as consultation is done in various stages besides the town planning process. Simply dismissing the lengthy and repetitive consultation work as a sign of public engagement ignores the time cost involved and the pressing housing crisis. In fact, the recommendation does not prevent stakeholders from voicing their opposition, but rather considers how to enhance consultation efficiency so that citizens can effectively partake in the town planning process. The gatekeeping role of the TPB also remains unchanged.
Public consultation is not simply a choice between “good” and “bad”, but a balancing act between conflicting merits. Some prioritise accommodating the housing demand; some insist on retaining leisure space; some put the development of transport networks first. In order for consultation to effectively refine views and build mutual trust, rather than relying on lengthy and repetitive consultation, the key is to get it “right”. The effectiveness of consultation hinges on whether the authorities can i) undertake the role of a moderator to forge consensus among stakeholders, ii) recognise and address citizens’ concerns in the process, and iii) collect data constantly to improve future planning work.
Review the entire development procedure to reassure the public
The proposal to streamline procedures mainly revolves around the Town Planning Ordinance, the Lands Resumption Ordinance, the Foreshore and Sea-bed (Reclamations) Ordinance, the Roads (Works, Use and Compensation) Ordinance, and the Railways Ordinance, with no mention of other procedures. It is thus difficult to avoid the impression that the town planning process is to blame for slowing down land supply. Indeed, other stages such as site formation, land lease modification and compulsory sales also have room for improvement. For example, during the construction of the first phase of NDAs, the Government does not process land exchange applications for the remaining phases, undoubtedly hindering private housing supply. To deepen the public understanding of the importance of streamlining procedures, the Government ought to offer recommendations regarding other non-statutory procedures and fully explain the defects of the current land development process. However, for the time being, the Government has only provided directional suggestions. Details are yet to be announced.