Hong Kong’s government has announced plans to tackle the city’s acute housing crisis by building a “Northern Metropolis” along its border with mainland China, uniting existing and planned development areas to provide more than 900,000 homes for some 2.5 million people.

The project was revealed on Wednesday, as Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivered the last policy address of her current term in the Legislative Council.

Farmland in the North District. File Photo: GovHK.

The development will cover “mature new towns” including Tin Shui Wai, Yuen Long, Fanling and Sheung Shui, as well as areas in different stages of development such as Kwu Tung North, Hung Shui Kiu, San Tin, Lok Ma Chau and Man Kam To. The metropolis will cover a total area of around 300 square kilometres.

The government wants to integrate individual development projects in various areas in an “innovative and organic manner” in a bid to “upgrade the entire region in a metropolitan area,” Lam said. Such a strategy would help Hong Kong better respond to new opportunities brought about by its deepened cooperation with the neighbouring mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“It is the most vibrant area where urban development and major population growth of Hong Kong in the next 20 years will take place,” Lam said.

Existing individual development projects within the Northern Metropolis area are estimated to provide 350,000 homes. The new proposal will create an additional 600 hectares of land for development. Government sources told HKFP on Wednesday that it may include Wetland Conservation Areas.

Lam estimated that when the Northern Metropolis is fully developed, a total of 905,000 to 926,000 residential units will be available to house around 2.5 million Hongkongers. The area is also expected to generate about 650,000 jobs, of which 150,000 will be IT-related.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam leaves the Legislative Council chamber after delivering her last Policy Address. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

About half of Hong Kong’s population lives in subsidised public housing but the waiting time is almost six years. Private housing is among the world’s most expensive and hundreds of thousands are forced to rent tiny subdivided private flats. China has publicly pressured Hong Kong to ease its housing crisis.

To steer the project, Lam said the government may add a Deputy Secretary of Development post in the upcoming term. The new official may also oversee the controversial Lantau Tomorrow Vision development plan, which involves a huge reclamation in the sea off Lantau island.

Details of the project will be released later in a development strategy document.

Price tag

New People’s Party’s leader Regina Ip hailed the Northern Metropolis plan as a “grand vision” that will bring Hong Kong “substantial long-term benefits.” But she raised questions on how the government would finance the project in light of predicted budget deficits.

“The government has not put a price tag on the development, but I think it can be done through public and private partnerships,” Ip suggested.

New People’s Party’s Regina Ip (right) and Eunice Yung (left) meet the press after Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivered the final Policy Address in her term on October 6, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The lawmaker, who is also a member of the Executive Council, said the government may consider enacting a Northern Metropolis ordinance to override current legislation governing development plans, to ensure the project is developed speedily.

If the government wants to cut through all these procedures, it would be best to enact a new statute… overriding all the existing ordinances,” she said, adding she thought Lam’s policy address was “very, very high quality” with “visionary planning” for the city.

Pro-establishment roundtable lawmaker Michael Tien said the development plan “contained everything [he] can possibly imagine.”

“I think it can’t be completed without at least two extra terms [for Lam]. Do we have to amend the Basic Law?” he said, referring to the chief executive’s two-term limit. 

However he also said it would be impossible to connect millions of commuters in the new “Northern Metropolis” to the rest of the city via Fanling Station alone, and the already-packed East Rail line “will explode.” Instead, he proposed that the government build a light rail system running in parallel to the East rail, bringing commuters through Tai Wai and Tsuen Wan.

In response, the Democratic Party chief Lo Kin-hei also complained at a press conference in the afternoon that the metropolis plan was uncosted.

He said they hoped it would be Lam’s last ever policy address: “We don’t want another five years from her.”

Unlocking Tso/Tong lands

To speed up land supply, the government is considering freeing up village plots collectively owned by clans, families and rural organisations by amending the New Territories Ordinance. Currently, the sales of Tso/Tong lands are subject to a list of restrictions, including consent from a government district officer, as well as “unanimous consent of all stakeholders.”

Hung Shui Kiu, Yuen Long. File Photo: GovHK.

Lam said she had heard suggestions that the government should ease the sales restrictions. It should take into account Tso/Tong traditions and the “legitimate interests” of Tso/Tong members, she said.

“I agree that to pragmatically break the current impasse in developing Tso/Tong lands, we may consider amending the New Territories Ordinance...” Lam said.

Easing land development rules

Government sources told HKFP that the authorities may review land development rules to include Wetland Buffer Areas in new development plans. It means developers will not have to submit specific applications for developing those lands.

A housing estate in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

The authorities may also look into whether an ecological impact assessment may be simplified.

Housing

Lam also pledged 5,000 more transitional housing units, in addition to the 150,000 already promised. Those on the waiting list will receive time-limited cash allowance, while tenancy control will be implemented for subdivided flats, pending approval from LegCo.

The city’s leader also reiterated her promise to deliver 330,000 public housing flats in the coming decade, saying the government had already identified 350 hectares of land. But Lam was hesitant about relaunching the Tenants Purchase Scheme and redeveloping ageing public housing estates, as suggested by some lawmakers.

“Taking into account the need for equitable distribution of PRH (public residential housing) resources, we consider it imprudent to relaunch the Tenants Purchase Scheme,” she said. The Housing Authority would look into the redevelopment of Sai Wan Estate and Ma Tau Wai Estate, that are around six decades old, under “suitable conditions.”

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.