The Hong Kong government has overlooked almost 3.8 square kilometres (380 hectares) of brownfield land which could be used for housing in preference to reclamation or encroaching on country parks, according to a land research group.

This is enough land to provide 95,000 public housing flats, equivalent to the city’s supply of public housing in the past six years, the Liber Research Community said.

Caesar Choi (left) from Liber Research Community and Chan Hall-sion from Greenpeace. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

In its latest report with environmental group Greenpeace it said the government had failed to continuously update its database, leading to the underestimation of the size of brownfield sites – often farmland polluted by industrial activity – available to solve the city’s housing crisis.

The report, released on Thursday, said that while the government claimed to have updated its data in May last year, the majority of the information on which officials were relying was three to five years old.

The research also said the Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing districts had been entirely excluded from official data, without any explanation.

The report said the government had, for example, failed to take into account about 70 hectares of “hidden brownfield sites” – former brownfield sites now covered by vegetation.

An example is Hung Lung Hang in Sheung Shui, described as a “dormant brownfield” in the report. Satellite images from 1993 to 2021 cited in the report showed that the area had been disturbed and then covered by vegetation three times over a period of 30 years.

Brownfield site in Hung Lung Hang, Sheung Shui. Photo: Liber Research Community and Greenpeace.

Under definitions used by the Planning Department, former brownfield sites currently covered with vegetation were not included as land available for brownfield development.

Researcher Caesar Choi said “hidden brownfield sites” should be prioritised in housing development over country parks and offshore reclamation, as those sites had a lower ecological value.

Along with the slowing down of public housing development, the study showed that the underestimation of brownfield sites would also lead to more environmental degradation because some polluted sites had edged closer to protected country parks due to a lack of oversight.

A brownfield site in Wo Yi Hop Village, Tsuen Wan, edging closer to the country park. Photo: Liber Research Community and Greenpeace.

In response to the report, the Planning Department admitted to the group that the government study of brownfield sites did not include Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, Tsuen Wan or Kwai Tsing districts.

The department said it would update wording on its website. It said it could not rule out the possibility that the official report may not show the latest land supply situation.

‘No heart or capability’

Greenpeace campaigner Chan Hall-sion told HKFP the government’s response showed that the administration “did not have the heart or capability, and was not putting in any effort” when it came to land development policy.

“I think the government did not actually respond to the issues we raised,” said Chan. “I think that what the government should update, instead of some wordings, is their policy.”

Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Photo: GovHK.

The government has been criticised for prioritising offshore reclamation over less environmentally damaging ways of finding land for housing. Former chief executive C.Y.Leung has also proposed developing land on the fringes of country parks.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam is pushing a massive reclamation plan called Lantau Tomorrow Vision, which aims to create a total of about 1,700 hectares through seabed reclamation east of Lantau island, as well as off Tuen Mun.

In addition to the potential environmental damage, critics estimate that the plan will cost the public coffers up to HK$1 trillion, as opposed to the government estimate of HK$624 billion.

Choi urged the government to update its brownfield database every year and prioritise development of those sites. He said civil society could pressure officials for better housing policies.

“From the government’s previous land policies, we can see that they still have to care about the public perception, you can see that they would not make sudden moves,” said Choi. “I think in this sense, there is still room for public opinion to put pressure on the government.”

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.