"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"The 'Lantau Tomorrow Vision' is typical of the concrete pouring solutions of the Hong Kong Government."
Hong Kong ranks amongst the most densely populated places on the planet. Add to that a lack of land for development, a shortage of housing and you have sky-high prices. A car-park space can cost the same as a decent-sized detached house in the UK. Depending on location, a 400 square-foot flat can will set you back around HK$8 million. That's about £800,000 or US$1 million.
No wonder people are struggling to get on the property ladder. There is a school of thought that protests last year, were in part, spurred on by a perception that wealthy mainlanders are buying up properties.
All Chief Executives have promised to tackle the housing issue without success. In the latest "I've got a great idea" Carrie Lam proposes building several artificial islands around Lantau. She aims to create a housing and business centre large enough for 1.1 million people — that’s equal to the population of Birmingham.
A construction project on this scale is possible, and I do not doubt that Hong Kong could tackle it. Yet, I'm not so sure we can justify the expenditure and environmental impact. The cost comes estimated at HK$624 billion, which is a more than 50% hit to our General Reserve of HK$1,000.8 billion. Proponents asserts this money will come back in sales of land and property, while critics claim only the developers gain.
Also, it's not evident that we've exhausted all other options to free up land. There is a considerable amount of space in the New Territories that is either misused, held by developers or capable of redevelopment. Yet, officials appear unwilling to tackle the vested interests who maintain control of this land.
Besides, HK$500 billion would go a long way towards alleviating poverty or repurposing existing properties to improve living conditions. No wonder there is an outcry that Lam is "pouring money into the sea".
There are many government claims about the project that don't stand up to scrutiny. For starters, the proposed population densities don't offer the less-cramped living suggested. Also, the transport links look set to create more bottle-necks.
Conversely, the idea that the government can attract financial services and IT companies to locate there is fanciful. At best, this will be another dormitory town with most residents commuting elsewhere to work.
With our economy battered by Covid-19, it remains uncertain that the government can fund the scheme and sustain other projects. The cost may lead to a standstill on all other initiatives.
There are several options to fund the project. Nonetheless, someone will need to pay, and some aspects of the deal look like a money grab by the usual culprits. With a bond issue, the benefits go to the same people who profited from our dodgy MPF scheme.
Meanwhile, putting all our eggs in one basket is not the best approach. In an age of climate change, creating low-level islands is a disaster waiting to happen. Take a look at Osaka Airport, which sits on reclaimed land. When Typhoon Jebi hit in 2018, the whole site flooded.
With sea levels expected to increase more than three feet above 2000 levels by the end of the century, will flooding be an issue? The infrastructure to withstand tidal surges will push up the costs further.
Time is also a factor. We have over 250,000 residents living in tiny subdivided flats or cage homes. The artificial islands will take a decade to appear, with housing units not expected to be ready until 2035 at the earliest. For many, that's too long to wait. The government needs to do something in the nearer term. Opposition to the project is building, while the usual big players are coming out in support.
For me, the 'Lantau Tomorrow Vision' is typical of the concrete pouring solutions of the Hong Kong Government. Already, taxpayers are coughing up HK$590 million for studies. However, just this week, the government dropped plans for the Kai Tak rail link having wasted millions on consultancies. We need to avoid similar expensive blunders.
With the population predicted to stabilise and then fall, it is debatable if we need such a massive project. As an alternative, a laudable start would be taking back land in the NT that is illegally occupied or used as storage. After all, let's not spoil this stunning scenery for future generations.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.