Waving a magic wand to rig data, oblivious to consequences, and ignoring the realities, Chief Executive Carrie Lam is marrying the magic dragon in the middle of the sea with the Wizard of Oz in the north.

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge as seen from Lantau Island. Photo: GovHK.

Upon completion of the Northern Metropolis, a total of 905,000 to 926,000 flats, including the existing 390,000 homes in Yuen Long and North districts, would be available to house a population of about 2.5 million. The 1,000-hectare Lantau Tomorrow Vision will house a population of up to 700,000.

According to the government, the five areas in the Northern Metropolis that will form the core for residential and commercial development (Ngan Tam Mei, San Tin/Lok Ma Chau, New Territories North New Town, Man Kam To, plus additional land to be developed) cover 2,270 hectares. That puts the population density of the Northern Metropolis at 110,000 per sq km.

This is more than the Lantau Tomorrow Vision where 700,000 residents are to live on 1,000 hectares of reclaimed land, giving a population density of 70,000 per sq km. This is already more congested than the most crowded district of Kwun Tong with 59,000 people per sq km. So much for more living space improving the quality of life in this land of make-believe.

Since the forecast of the number of households is the key to determining future housing needs, one would expect that these numbers are credible and solidly developed. However, a review of the government’s analysis does not give taxpayers much comfort.

north district
Farmland in the North District. File Photo: GovHK.

In the government’s plan, future housing needs has three components : growth in the number of households, households displaced by the redevelopment of aged homes, and “others” – inadequately housed households, mobile population, and adjustment for vacancies.

While the forecast growth in households decreases from 431,200 in 2016-2046 to 390,000 in 2019-2048 because of a decrease in the long-term population, future housing needs remain the same at one million by increasing the numbers in the other two categories. Such funding of numbers is akin to magic performed by a skilful witch.

Thus, of the projected one million housing units required between 2019-2048, only 390,000 represent growth in the number of households. Of the remaining 610,000, 370,000 are targeted for households displaced due to redevelopment of buildings more than 70 years old. Another 240,000 are reserved for inadequately housed households, mobile population and adjustments for vacancies in the private housing sector.

The softness of this methodology is obvious. The number of homes required can be adjusted up or down at will by selecting a different age for the properties to be redeveloped. By redeveloping those over 50 years old instead of 70, Our Hong Kong Foundation upped the number to 615,000. Relying on such data with simplistic methodology to make trillion-dollar decisions in urban planning over 30 years is laughable, if not irresponsible.

The problematic forecast in housing leads to a dilemma. Either there will be an overcapacity of 220,000 homes, or an unaccountable increase in population to live in those homes. Upon full development of the Northern Metropolis, a total of 905,000 to 926,000 flats, including the existing 390,000 homes in Yuen Long and North districts, will be available – a net increase of up to 536,000 units.

Lantau Tomorrow adds another 260,000 units. Carrie Lam announced in her policy address that up to 430,000 public and private flats will be available elsewhere in the next 10 years. Hence, together with NM and LTV, some 1.22 million flats will be built in the next 30 years when the demand is only one million, according to the government. This is equal to 22 per cent housing overcapacity. On the other hand, if these flats were filled, at an average 2.7 occupants per household, there will be an increase of 594,000 in population beyond what is forecast. Where will these people come from ? The government has yet to articulate a population policy to attract so many newcomers to Hong Kong when on the contrary there will be substantial emigration.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

What is even more revealing is that most of the development is driven more by relocating residents of older buildings and those who live in inadequate housing, rather than by growth in population and households. Such older buildings are concentrated in Yau Tsim Mong, Kowloon City and Sham Shui Po.

Large-scale migration of 610,000 households from one area to another would be a mammoth and unprecedented undertaking in the history of Hong Kong. The relocation of some of those households to an entirely different physical, social, and cultural environment like Lantau Tomorrow Vision in the middle of the sea, and North Metropolis adjacent to Shenzhen would pose an immense challenge in creating new communities to which relocated households can adjust. The fact that massive relocation is the driver in future housing needs requires a critical evaluation on its own, but this is conveniently sidestepped

While Lantau Tomorrow Vision is itself conceptually flawed, its role in the presence of the Northern Metropolis makes these trillion-dollar investments even more dubious. It is recast to be an expansion of the community around Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong and Kowloon. This makes a mockery of the “Lantau” part – geographically, there is very little Lantau about a development in the sea four km away from Lantau and from Kennedy Town.

social distancing playground public housing etate
File Photo: Wong Wai Ping/ United Social Press.

Given the North Metropolis and the already economically developed north Lantau, the orientation of Lantau Tomorrow towards Hong Kong and Kowloon makes it laughable to see it as a bridgehead to the Greater Bay Area to the north. Without a clear strategy and commitment to develop a new central business district there as planned – and so far there is none – few businesses will relocate operations in the middle of the sea with no history, culture, or neighbouring community to grow from.

With only one tunnel to Hong Kong island serving 700,000 people as well as traffic to and from northwest New Territories and northern Lantau, the transport network simply will not work. It will create congestion in the tunnel and in already-congested Kennedy Town, where cars, buses and trains will exit the tunnel.

One would expect that a development of such immensity would be thoroughly evaluated as a concept before being presented to the public. The government is marketing it as a real estate project with slogans and glossy brochures: it has shown no sign of such rigorous due diligence since the idea was broached in 2014 by then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

There has been little careful thinking or analysis of projects as large, expensive and risky as these. Instead, a herd of white elephants tramples around in a land of make-believe.

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Tom Yam a member of the Citizens Task Force on Land Resources, a group of professionals dedicated to broaden and facilitate the debate on critical issues including sustainable development, the optimal use of land, and the conservation of resources.