350,000 people could be housed in New Territories North, government study finds

Up to 350,000 people could live in one of Hong Kong’s untouched frontiers, spanning Lok Ma Chau, San Tin and Ping Che, a consultant’s study commissioned by the government found.

The study further suggested that the land could be developed into a new town that includes science parks and sites that focus on logistics and innovation.

The proposals concern a 5,300 hectare area in the New Territories North area, close to the border. Despite its sparse development, more than 610,000 people and 42,000 vehicles pass through the area daily, according to statistics in 2015.  

“The site could be more than just a boundary area,” notes the Planning Department and Civil Engineering and Development Department in the study report. “Its development potential should be better harnessed.”

Two scenarios were proposed in the report. One of them would transform the area into homes for 255,000 people, while the other would provide shelters for a whopping 350,000 people. Up to 215,000 job opportunities could be created under both plans, according to the proposals. However, details of the costs are uncertain as the report said the ideas are only “conceptual” now.

The report indicated that the project could take up to 26 years to develop.  

Under the first proposal, a new railway would be needed to be built to connect Heung Yuen Wai, an area near the Chinese border, to the new towns.

The more ambitious second scenario proposed suggested to extend the rail plans, to support a bigger population of 350,000. The density in the area may be similar to some districts of Kowloon, and this plan would take 26 years to be implemented.

Policymaker Edward Lau, also a district councillor for the area, said both proposals could potentially cause huge population growth in the area.

“The District Council would support such large-scale development plan only if there are new roads and rails, as the traffic is saturated,” said Lau.

An even more ambitious third proposal suggested housing 397,000 people and providing job opportunities for 165,000 was suggested. But the government decided to not conduct any further study of it, as the proposal is considered technically difficult to implement.

The study also considered potentially developing the Fanling Golf Course to build 13,000 flats that could accommodate 37,000 residents, which had previously prompted a heated debate. Hong Kong is widely perceived to have a shortage of land supply, and some critics have been saying it was time to release some private recreational sites for housing.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, chief executive of environmental group Green Sense and a long-time supporter of developing the golf course, raised the question “why should these exclusive, members-only sites be protected from urban planning when the government is looking high and low for land to build housing, even turning urban green areas and public recreational sites into residential sites?”

Ng Mee-kam, a professor at Chinese University and a director of its urban studies programme, said such development plans have neglected the existing utilization of the space and raised even more questions on the development of New Territories North.

“Even in Shenzhen and [other parts of] mainland China, they’re talking about sponge city development,” said Ng. “How can Hong Kong develop a policy for a lower-carbon environment? Can it be more self-sufficient for food? We don’t know what kind of cultural traits or important heritage we need to conserve and preserve.”

“My worry is that we’ll see another Sha Tin or Tai Po. Sha Tin may be cutting edge in the 20th century,” he added. “But we shouldn’t be doing that any more- this is a new frontier, we need to have a more futuristic vision for that place.”