英文

Editorial : HK government must muster the determination to solve land privileges in the New Territories

【明報專訊】The Heung Yee Kuk has set up a "Housing Supply Committee" to study land development strategies in the New Territories with the hope that it can present its suggestions before the Chief Executive publishes the Policy Address in October. The central government has emphasised that Hong Kong needs to solve the housing problem, while the Chief Executive has said that it takes the mobilisation of the whole society to "create land out of nowhere". The New Territories North is a major source of land supply in Hong Kong. Apart from the private idle farmland held by developers, there is also a huge area of ancestral land collectively owned by clans that can be put to good use.

Ancestral land in Hong Kong is estimated to reach 2,400 hectares in area altogether, twice the area of the idle land in the New Territories owned by the four major developers measuring 1,000 hectares approximately. It will go a long way towards alleviating the shortage of land and housing if one third of such ancestral land or more is used to put up housing. Of course, the development of ancestral land is easier said than done, and one cannot think that such land can replace other land creation options simply by considering the area of such land. There are two main difficulties in the development of ancestral land. First, these lands are scattered in different areas, and it is not easy to combine them. Second, the ownership of these lands is fragmented, and the views of the stakeholders are diverse.

According to current practice, the consent of all stakeholders is generally required for the sale of ancestral land. The problem is that much ancestral land was passed down by prominent clans, some of which can be traced back to more than a hundred years ago. Multiple generations have passed, and the more the descendants of a family, the more the stakeholders. Some descendants have even moved abroad and cannot be in touch anymore. It is difficult enough to find all these stakeholders. Further complicating matters is the diversity of their views. It is extremely difficult for several hundred people to reach an agreement on the selling price. In the past, developers occasionally negotiated with these stakeholders on the purchase of ancestral land. The main reason was that such land was located between two pieces of agricultural land held by the developer. If it was possible to acquire that ancestral land to create a bigger plot of land, the developmental potential would no doubt be greater. In theory, the government can take the initiative to repossess the land, but in reality, it is another matter. The government has not actively recovered idle agricultural land from developers over the years, not to mention the land of indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories. This gives one the impression that the government shies away from what is difficult. Having spent two years on a study, the government earlier invoked the "Lands Resumption Ordinance" to recover three pieces of private land measuring approximately 1.2 hectares in accordance with the existing compensation method. They included some ancestral land, which was extremely rare.

The issue of privilege is a stumbling block to the effective development of land in the New Territories. The government must have the determination to shatter the barriers. Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the government and the Heung Yee Kuk in the case about Small Houses in the New Territories. However, when there is no new source of land, there will naturally be a cut-off point for the application for Small Houses. Whether the indigenous residents' right to Small Houses is among the so-called "lawful traditional rights and interests" referred to in the Basic Law has to be determined by the Court of Final Appeal. In any case, it is time for the government to solve the problem of land privileges in the New Territories once and for all. It should not be too circumspect.

明報社評2021.07.22:祖堂地開發拆牆鬆綁 解決土地特權此其時

鄉議局成立「房屋供應專責委員會」,研究新界土地發展策略,盼可在10月行政長官發表《施政報告》前提出意見。中央強調香港需要解決房屋問題,行政長官則表示,「開天闢地」需要全社會動員,新界北是香港一個主要土地供應來源,除了發展商手上的私人閒置農地,還有大量由宗族等集體持有的祖堂地可以善用。

全港祖堂地總面積估計達到2400公頃,較四大發展商擁有的約千公頃新界閒置土地,多出一倍,如能釋出三分之一或以上用地來興建房屋,對紓緩土地房屋短缺,將有莫大裨益。當然,祖堂地發展知易行難,不能單憑面積數字,便以為可以取代其他造地方案。開發祖堂地,主要困難有二,一是這些土地散落不同地區,不易整合,二是業權分散,持份者意見紛紜。

根據現行做法,出售祖堂地,一般需要獲得所有持份者同意,問題是很多祖堂地都是由顯赫大族留下,部分傳承上百年,經過多代繁衍,子孫愈多,持份者愈眾,有些後人甚至早已移居海外,失去聯絡,如何「找齊」所有持份者,本身已非常困難,何况人多意見多,數百人要就出售價錢達成一致,難若登天。過去偶爾有發展商洽購祖堂地,原因大多是相關祖堂地剛好位處發展商持有的兩塊農地之間,若能順利收購,整合出面積更大的地皮,發展潛力自然更大。理論上,政府可以主動收地,現實卻是另一回事,莫說碰新界原居民土地,就連發展商的閒置農地,多年來也沒有積極收回,予人觀感是懼事避難。政府花了兩年時間研究,早前引用《收回土地條例》,按現行補償方式,收回3幅合計約1.2公頃的私人土地,當中包括一些祖堂地,已屬「難得一見」。

特權問題是有效開發新界土地的一塊絆腳石,政府要有決心衝破藩籬障礙。今年初,上訴庭就丁權案裁定政府及鄉議局上訴得直,然而沒有新的土地來源,丁屋自然要「截龍」。新界原居民丁權是否屬於《基本法》所指的「合法傳統權益」,有待終審法院判定,無論如何,政府是時候一攬子解決新界土地特權問題,不應再瞻前顧後。

■Glossary

生字

ancestral : connected with or that belonged to people in your family who lived a long time ago

shy away from : to avoid doing something because you are nervous or frightened

stumbling block : something that causes problems and prevents you from achieving your aim

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