Striking a balance between development and conservation

    01/21/2021 - 15:46

    This article appeared originally in the ejinisght on 27 January, 2021.
    Authors: Ryan Ip, Head of Land and Housing Research, Jacqueline Hui, researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation.



    Despite the land shortage, Hong Kong needs to strike a sensible balance between building houses and caring for our natural habitats, that is why the government should keep an open mind and look at successful overseas examples for inspiration.

    As the city strives to find more land to resolve the housing shortage, the need to conserve our environment and habitat presents an ongoing dilemma. The question is: are conservation and development always incompatible?

    One of the more contentious areas is in northwestern and northern New Territories, where a large proportion of new land supply is located. In the Policy Address late last year, the government promised to speed up the Northern Link rapid transit railway project, while announcing it is researching into the potential of 90 hectares of land along the new railway's route for housing purpose.

    The new transportation infrastructure would help to release the development potential in northwestern and northern New Territories, but there are also conservation issues. There are many fishponds and wetlands in areas like San Tin, Ngau Tam Mei and Au Tau which are home to important biological species, and some organisations are concerned that future housing development would threaten the biological ecosystems.

    Conservation of private land is easier said than done

    Currently, laws such as the Country Parks Ordinance and Town Planning Ordinance stipulate the conservation areas, while about half of Hong Kong’s total area is earmarked for different forms of nature conservation purposes. Government land with high ecological value is given to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department or other non-governmental organisations to manage.

    On the other hand, current policies are almost powerless in the conservation of privately owned land. Although the law can regulate development on ecologically sensitive land, it cannot guarantee the owner will manage the land properly and maintain its ecological value. For example, most wetlands in Hong Kong are man-made wetlands created from fishponds, which need suitable mowing and regular control of the clear water-sea water ratio, to prevent drying up and losing the ecological value. But with the decline of the local fishery sector, many fishponds are abandoned. In order to conserve the ecological environment of wetlands and maintain biological diversity, resources and time are essential, as are supervision and management. Continuing the current situation will only result in shrinking ecological values for the land.

    Addressing the difficulties in conservation of private land, the government had earlier introduced a policy for nature conservation to promote private-public sector cooperation. It allows applicants to develop in areas that are not ecologically sensitive, and jointly manage the other parts with environmental groups. However, no such project has ever been approved.

    On the other hand, the government has also set up the Nature Conservation Management Agreement Scheme which allows environmental groups to apply for the Environment and Conservation Fund(ECF) and sign an agreement with the landowners. The sponsored environmental group can give financial incentive to the landowner in exchange for the management right for conservation work. But some groups complained the ECF is both meagre and short-termed, for just two or three years, which led to little conservation results.

    Development and conservation can work together

    The challenge of balancing development and conservation is not unique to Hong Kong, and other countries have tried different forms of public-private partnership to conserve privately owned land. Under the Conservation Trust system in the United Kingdom, the Trust has the status of a legal entity which can negotiate with the property owner, while also holding and managing the land. As such, the Trust can implement long-termed protection and conservation work. These Trust can recruit members, raise funds through membership fees, receive donations and endowments, as well as conduct commercial activities, helping them to pay for the cost of conservation.

    The London Wetland Centre is a successful example of how the private and public sectors can team up. In the 1990s, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust was struggling for cash when it was trying to build a wetland park in a deserted reservoir in southwest London. As a result, they sold 10 hectares of the land to developers for building commercial and residential buildings, while continuing to manage the remaining 30 hectares. The developers then put part of the revenue from properties sales(about 11 million GBP) to the Trust, allowing the conservation project to commence. The project was subsequently awarded a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 2002.

    Another example is the National Trust. Formerly known as the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, the National Trust in the United Kingdom is the largest conservation organisation in Europe, managing some 240,000 hectares of land including natural conservation areas, gardens, as well as historical sites and houses. Operational funds come from membership fees, entrance fees, catering, endowment, and investment income. The Trust is financial viability with an asset value of 1.3 billion GBP in 2018-2019.

    Creating a win-win solution

    As Hong Kong continues to argue over whether development or conservation is better, other countries have various programmes that can accommodate both. With a serious shortage of land, our city cannot afford to pick one over another. Overseas examples show it is possible for development and conservation to go hand in hand, that is why Hong Kong should explore more options to satisfy both our housing needs and our duty to preserve our natural habitat.