The controversy over country park housing in Hong Kong

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Country parks are an important part of our city. Yet, they are in imminent danger of being developed. Anna Cummins investigates a recent increase in the number of village houses in country parks, and why this is so detrimental to the environment

Unless you’ve been under some kind of rock in the past month, it’s likely you have heard about the controversy created by Secretary for Development Paul Chan following his suggestion that we could reallocate parts of our country parks for housing. In the ensuing debate, government housing advisor Dr Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu attracted ridicule, when he happily admitted that he hadn’t visited a country park for 16 years. 

Yet, there is further bad news for those who do happen to enjoy visiting our verdant expanses of countryside. On September 27, The Town Planning Board gazetted plans to increase the area of ‘Village Type Development’ – or ‘V-zone’ to those in the industry – in three villages, which all lie within country parks. This provides for a potential 287 new houses to be constructed across the villages, located at Hoi Ha and Pak Lap in Sai Kung, and So Lo Pun in Plover Cove. Twenty houses are already under construction in the Hakka village of Tai Tan, located in Sai Kung.

Building these houses is completely legal under the government’s Small House Policy, which began in 1972, back when rural living conditions needed improving. Male indigenous villagers were permitted a one-time grant to build a three-storey house, up to 2,100sq ft in gross area. Private enclaves of land were created within the country parks to allow the villagers to carry on their way of life, and this housing entitlement, known as a ‘ding uk’, remains valid today for any male villager over 18 who has access to a plot of land. Now, with rising land values and an increase in connectivity to previously isolated areas, these rights are in high demand, and villages are suddenly developing at alarming rates. In response, the government is simply extending the V-zones.

Paul Zimmerman is the CEO of Designing Hong Kong and points out why an increase in V-zones is a cause for concern. “Because these houses are exempted [from building regulations], every house does [the infrastructure] for itself,” he says. “But each village becomes a rotten place; there is chaos, lack of roads, illegal roads, people slashing tyres because someone has parked in their space, people having fights. It’s unhygienic with [leaking] septic tanks, it’s unsightly. It doesn’t look like you are in a world class city when you are in those villages.” To highlight his point, Zimmerman recalls a sad case that occurred last year, when a fire broke out in a village house near Yuen Long. The fire engine could not properly negotiate the private road, and two young boys subsequently died from smoke inhalation.


Sharp Peak Stunning vistas at Tai Tan

Ms Kam, who didn’t want to use her real name, is a resident in Tai Tan village, Sai Kung, where around 20 houses are currently being built. “We are all extremely sad and frustrated to see the development in the village,” she says. “If we could be assured it was being done in a style that would be in harmony with the environment, then that would be fair enough. However, from what we can see, a beautiful Hakka village will have all its identity and charming character bulldozed away.” 

The villagers in the New Territories are represented by the Heung Yee Kuk, the rural council. Junius Ho is chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee and ex-officio member of the Heung Yee Kuk. Ho argues that, regardless of the environmental concerns, the government has no right to interfere with private property and owners should be able to develop as they wish. “Article 40 [of the Basic Law] says that the rights of indigenous people shall be protected,” says Ho. “The ding uk is a constitutional right. That is the right of a person to enjoy his own private property. So why do you complain about that?” He continues, “these rights are carved in stone in Basic Law… you can’t be generous at the expense of private property, for the so-called promotion of public interest.”

Villagers have often been criticised for simply cashing in on this grant, by selling their discounted land or house onto property developers. Ho is unsympathetic about these concerns. “It may be jealousy,” he says. “I can well see other people’s sentiment; sour grapes, that sort of thing.” 

Not every villager feels the same way, however. Dr Billy Hau is an indigenous villager in Ho Sheung Heung village, near Sheung Shui, and a lecturer in environmental management at the University of Hong Kong. “Personally, I object to people selling their small houses,” he says. “When they sell the property, they are not really protecting the integrity of the village and the culture; they are only using it to grab money. That’s what I don’t like. But you can’t stop them, unless you want to end up in a fight.” Hau explains, “the village is not civilised at all, disputes are quite common. If you own a car, you have to pay $500-$1,000 per month just to guarantee your car will not be damaged.” 


Diggers at work A road being built through Tai Tan village

One thing that everyone agrees on is that these village houses are highly damaging to the environment. “The present situation is totally undesirable,” says Ho.  “But who is to blame? I don’t think that it is the villagers or the developers – the government has a role to play… they are the keepers of the environment.” 

So, why does the government not offer compensation to the villagers, to stem the demand for houses? Ho laughs at the suggestion. “They are [too] cheap!” he exclaims. “To buy all that land, say if that is about 5 million sq ft; that will cost $10 billion or $20 billion. [Yet,] that is nothing, if you look at the annual government expenditure. Paying this money to build a harmonious, long-term plan for the country parks, it would be worthwhile and there would be no more quarrels.”

For now, it seems as though these villages will keep developing, with more of the country parks ending up in the hands of developers. Many worry that, with notoriously powerful (and reportedly billionaire) Lau Wong-fat at their helm, the Heung Yee Kuk are disproportionately influential at defending villagers’ financial interests, which will prevent future reform of the Small House Policy.   

Ho disagrees with vigour. “That is bulls***!  Lau Wong-fat is so powerful? Who said that he has a lot of money? Have you checked his bank account?” he asks. “Are [Heung Yee Kuk] a mafia or Triad organisation?” he jokes. “We are just an advisory body; we think of the problems and think about solutions.”

To find out more on the gazetted development areas, see bit.ly/HKCountryParkTPB.

All images courtesy of Red Door News, Hong Kong

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