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







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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