Former director of planning Professor Ling Kar-kan. (PHOTO / HKSAR GOVERNMENT)

Former director of planning Professor Ling Kar-kan is on the show this week on tackling Hong Kong’s housing problem. Ling says the so-called red tapes and due process are necessary to take care of stakeholders' interests. 

“…whether public engagement is a hurdle in a development process, the answer is yes and no. First of all, we cannot do away without a public engagement because we really need to get the opinion of the stakeholders,” Ling said.

On identifying land for housing development, he says there's no need to venture into country parks.

“…When I was a director, we identified about 150 hectares of greenbelt sites, which is outside country parks, and that will be able to accommodate about 90,000 flats.”

He also says the Northern Metropolis project is not something being started from zero: “There are three new towns already there, a number new development areas which are, in fact, expansion of the current new towns.”

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Professor Ling Kar-Kan

Chan: This is Eugene Chan and welcome to Straight Talk. Our guest tonight is Professor Ling Kar-kan. He was the director of planning and formerly the strategic planning advisor for the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Cooperation of the Hong Kong SAR government. He has served in the Planning Department for more than 30 years, handling numerous planning studies and development projects. Tonight, we have invited Professor Ling to tell us if he thinks getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy will fix Hong Kong's housing crisis. Welcome, KK. 


Right. As you know, Chief Executive candidate, Mr John Lee, presented his manifesto last Friday. And one of his four tenets is to streamline procedures, providing more housing, and better living. So housing is definitely high on this agenda. Mr Eric Ma, our former secretary for development, was here last week. And he said that to solve the housing shortage, the government must get rid of the red tapes and release more land. So KK, you being the key person, because you have been with the government for the last few decades in the planning development, looking at Hong Kong land, etc. So you will be the best person to tell our viewers. Do you agree that by removing so called red tape will fix Hong Kong's imminent housing crisis?

Ling: The statement of removing red tapes is always right. But the point is, what are these red tapes? We know that land development is a very complicated process and it involves several very important ordinances, and they all have statutory requirements to meet, you know, various purposes. So I think we have to find out more carefully what procedures are now considered excessive and can be streamlined.

Chan: Right KK, maybe before we go into more details of what we are referring to red tape, regulations or consultations, I know the last few years in Hong Kong, we have 29,000 units of both public and private housing and it has been said that is not enough. So how, how many more units do we have to provide per year that will meet our current demand?

Ling: The long term housing strategy is talking about how we will need to provide almost 46,000 units a year. So I think that is more or less, there may be fluctuations, but more or less that is the amount.

Chan: Right. So as you know, we always understand that having not enough land, therefore not enough housing for Hong Kong has always been much talked about in the community, being a real professional in the area, is land supply, the only issue that affects the number of units we have for public and private housing?

Ling: I won't say that's the only factor but that is a very, very important factor, very critical factor, I would say. If we cannot produce a sufficient amount of developable land, then you just cannot erect buildings. So the provision of sufficient development land is a critical issue.

Chan: Right. What are issues will sort of affect the number of housing units being built?

Ling: Then that comes to the land… if a development land is provided, then how efficiently we will be able, you know, to lay the infrastructure, build the housing. Then that's another factor.

Chan: So Mr John Lee in his manifesto, he said, "We must streamline the procedures, and also compress the housing construction process", It's exactly what you're saying. So just for the viewers information, how long does it take from a piece of land, right from, it’s available to when it's ready to have a unit that people can actually move in or use? How long is the process?

Ling: It really depends on the situation. If we're talking about a greenfield site, it means that we need to, there's nothing there except, for example, trees and wildlife, alright? Then if we have to turn this into a development land, then probably first of all, we need to carry out very detailed planning and engineering feasibility study, as well as our environmental impact assessment, you know, with that, then we can set out the… set down the layout for the infrastructure, how the roads will go, how the water supply, sewage discharge, how this can be handled. And then what sort of land uses for example, not only housing, we need schools, we need parks. Alright, we need various sorts of community services, you know, how this should be allocated in this area, then probably this sort of study normally will take about 13 months. All right, that's a normal schedule and of course, during that period, we carry out a lot of our ground investigation, design investigation, and also engage you know, the stakeholders and after that, then we need to go through a number of statutory requirements under the for example, the town planning ordinance, the roads ordinance, alright, the land if private land is involved, then we need to call for the land resumption ordinance to resume you know, the private properties in order to consolidate the ownership of the land and if there are some people are living there or some business living there, then we also need to, you know, rehouse the people clear the business operation, only when these are completed, then the piece of land is clean, and then you know, we can start with what we call the earth moving activities, to form the land. 

Chan: Actually, it takes you a few minutes to explain to us the number of ordinances, they have to go through no wonder that takes time, I read in one report that there was an application for redevelopment, they said they take them six years for it to be approved and take four to five years to build something on it, it becomes a 10 years process. So this is not unheard of before right? It can be quite long.

Ling: It can be quite long, and actually it really depends on circumstances. Some time if we talk about private property, there's one more complication, that developer particularly in the New Territories, the land ownership is so fragmented, a private developer may not be easily you know, assemble all the landholding to form an integrated site. So, there may be holes there. So you still need to negotiate with some other property owners. And that takes time.

Chan: Right. So I suppose Mr John Lee has proposed, and also Mr. Eric Ma has said to remove the red tape. So, as you said earlier, we had defined what are the red tapes, they must be there for a reason. So why are we having all these so-called due processes put in the system? What is the purpose?

Ling: I think the purpose is, first of all, we need to make sure that, you know, the environment is not unduly affected, so we always need to strike a proper balance between development and conservation. Alright, so that's the first part. And the other part is we need to ensure you know, the private interest is also fairly taken care of or so if the development affects somebody's interests, then really to handle it carefully under the law.

Chan: Say if there are no red tapes, we remove them once and for all, what will be the side effects? Will there be a lot of traffic congestion, there may be like pollution, etc.

Ling: As I said, it depends on how you define red tapes. All right, red tapes, you may define as some sort of excessive procedures and regulations. But so far all these regulations, and procedures, or considerations are relevant and necessary. I think the point is how we can do this quicker, and how we can better integrate all this process instead of doing it consequently, doing competing A and then B, and then C and ABC to a certain extent overlap with each other so we can compress, you know, the process. 

Chan: So this is what you meant by streamlining the procedure, so the red tape should be there but it has to be more streamlined. And also, since you mentioned, I mean more integration. And in Hong Kong, right at this moment, this government has two bureaus, one's for the planning. One is for housing. They're separate. So in the new proposal by Mrs Carrie Lam, and last year, she said some of the work has to be merged together to be more efficient. Do you agree with that being a person who has been there for decades?

Ling: I think some sort of division of responsibilities is necessary, alright. We need to be very clear who is responsible for what. However, it doesn't mean that I'm only doing my job without taking into account what other people are doing. So it would be more efficient if all these departments responsible for a particular project can go together, you know, and then resolve the problems together. Then that will be more efficient.

Chan: KK, you have been a civil servant for your career, and you have risen through to being a director. And recently there has been a lot of discussion on civil servants efficiency. And I mean, I know many civil servants. And I mean, you just can't say one opinion for all. But it is true, like Eric Ma said last week, there is a blame culture in Hong Kong in the last few years, especially the citizens will blame the civil servants for whatever they don't see, they don't like. And so the civil servants become very protective in nature. Firstly, is that true? And secondly, was Mr. John Lee proposing having a bring us and "we" attitude with the civil servants, they may even put in KPIs and all that, do you think that is a new way forward?

Ling: Well, first of all, about the blame culture, I think, yes, it's true that you know, the civil servant received a lot of complaints almost every day. And to a certain extent, we are pretty used to it, we will have to look at all these complaints, whether these complaints are reasonable or sometimes to some extent, not entirely reasonable, but in any case, all these complaints reflect the concern of the people and then we need to consider them and we need to respond to it. So to a certain extent, I will say, yes, this so-called blame culture, makes the civil servants work more cautiously. And sometimes they may stop for a while and look at all these complaints, why suddenly there are so many complaints, alright, so that is inevitable, but I can never find out any government in the world will not receive complaints, alright. 

Chan: All right. KK, let's have a break and when we come back, we'll go back to this area again.

Chan: Thanks for staying with us. We have Professor Ling Kar-Kan with us tonight. And we have been talking about getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy to fix Hong Kong’s housing crisis. So KK, in the first part, we had a quick look at…we both agreed that land is needed for the development. And we looked at some of the red tapes that is necessary, but maybe we can streamline better. The last area we touched on is the part about civil servants being in the community headline nowadays, saying they can work better. And you were saying that all governments receive complaints and you will handle it accordingly. Recently in the Hong Kong Foundation report, they were saying that to cut the red tape, it’s to drive the civil servants’ performance to the fullest. And in South Korea and Singapore, they even give incentives to… promotion, or even cash bonuses. Do you think our civil servants need that to work harder or they are already working very hard?

Ling: I think the civil servants, in my experience, are working very hard. So I am not sure whether these sort of so-called cash bonus will act to the further efficiency of the whole civil servants. 

Chan: Right. One question is, when you were saying having KPI – key performance index, that means more data has to be collected, does that mean more bureaucracy created? 

Ling: Well, KPIs are useful, at least we know our target and then keep on going monitoring to situation, KPIs are useful. Of course, how we generate KPIs, are these KPIs at the very start pragmatic for achieving or anything else? Then that is always the problem.

Chan: That’s why I am worried, it will become more bureaucratic, having more KPIs. Anyway, let’s move on to another area. You have been with the government for decades, and I read in the 2019 with the government planning department report, it is saying that 42 percent of land is used for country parks.

Ling: Yes.

Chan: 25 percent is for development, and only 7 percent is for housing. Is there anyway that we can free up more land so that the 7 percent of land, the amount will go up?

Ling: Well, of course we can do it. Actually we are doing it. One way… actually in the earlier several years ago, the government carried out a very so-called big debate about the methods in supplying the land, alright? And then it comes up two top priorities supported or two top preferences supported by the people. One is the large scale conversion of brown field sites.

Chan: Right.

Ling: So that is… when we talk about large scale conversions of brown field sites, then actually we are talking about new town approach, comprehensive planning and development approach. The second preference is large scale reclamation outside the Victoria harbour, and that is our Lantau Tomorrow or Central harbour’s reclamation. So with these projects pressed ahead, then certainly we will increase the percentage of residential land.

Chan: So that will increase eventually?

Ling: Yes, definitely.

Chan: KK, I am sure the viewers and me would like to ask you the next question, naturally it’s… Hong Kong has always known to be not have a lot of land, but we have got some beautiful country parks, housing prices or the housing condition has never been that ideal because we are not living in very big houses, sometimes the flats are quite congested together. And every Chief Executive after the handover has been saying that we must fix the housing.

Ling: Yes. Every Chief Executive. And I am sure they are putting very good policies. 

Chan: Being there for the last decades, what was the reason that after all those efforts, we are still behind and there are still not enough land? I am sure many people would want to know. 

Ling: Actually I always say that, we lost 20 years’ time. You know the first 10 years, it was because of the Asian financial crisis, and then the government stopped the land formation process. So to a certain extent, that responded to the demand of the community. There are confidence… crisis about the property price, this and that. So we essentially stopped all the land formation process in the first 10 years after the return, alright? And then when we triggered again the development process, which was in 2007, when the then Chief Executive, Mr Donald Tsang, declared the 10 major infrastructure projects, then we encountered a large number of, I would say, political objections, from some sectors of the public, even Legislative Council, also essentially we really need to chase up, we need to chase up. So I think we are now getting into the momentum, the momentum already triggered. So we have a number of, what we call, the new development areas, in Kwu Tong North, Fanling North, Hung Shui Kiu, development triggered. So if nowadays, you go to Hung Shui Kiu area, you can see all the cranes are moving in the skyline, so a lot of construction activities are being actively taken.

Chan: So you are saying that because of various factors, we were delayed.

Ling: Yes.

Chan: And now with momentum and determination, as Mr John Lee has proposed, we have a chance of at least catching up in the right direction?

Ling: Yes, that is my view.

Chan: Right. I want to ask you – Lantau Tomorrow, as you said, reclamation is one thing that people have been talking about in the last decade, by Mrs Lam was proposed in 2018, it was… actually I checked back some record, there was a study on reclaiming land, it started like eight years ago, even 2014. Up until today, it hasn’t really started, and someone says it’s because too much public engagement and too much research. Do you agree?

Ling: No, I don’t agree. As far as I know, you know the government said that the preliminary engineering and land use land plan for Lantau Tomorrow will be announced later this year for public engagement. And when you talk about whether public engagement is a hurdle in a development process, the answer is yes and no. First of all, we cannot do away without a public engagement because we really need to get the opinion of the stakeholders, and whether they will support it. And after all, you know, the development will need to go to Legislative Council to ask for public money, to implement, and then the legislative councillors will definitely concern about whether the community is supportive.

Chan: So with another new initiative, the Northern Metropolis, is it going to take another 10 years you think?

Ling: Well…

Since you have public engagement, still have to get the money.

Actually the Northern Metropolis is not something come out of a scratch. There are three new towns already there, a number new development areas which are, in fact, expansion of the current new towns. Studies completed, works being taken at various stages, and the Northern Metropolis development strategy is proposed to add more development land, and then make it… provide more jobs, and then work out a spatial framework, so that we can be more integrated with the development of Shenzhen to make use of the development energy for our benefit. 

Chan: Right. KK, you know for both the Lantau Tomorrow and also the Northern Metropolis, they are long-term projects. Say for more short-term, I mean like Mr John Lee, on his manifesto, has already said he is going to review the 16,000 hectares of greenbelt zones, as well as 1,600 hectares of brown fields, that you just mentioned. But there is also someone on the community bring out the fact that how about the country park fringes? That wasn’t included. What is your view on that? Should we all have that as well?

Ling: We do not need to go into the country parks, in my opinion. We have 16,000 hectares of greenbelt sites, which is outside country parks. So why didn’t we do further investigation about which part of this greenbelt may be suitable for development? Actually when I was a director, we identified about 150 hectares of greenbelt sites, which is outside country parks, and that will be able to accommodate about 90,000 flats. And actually this sort of, what we call, a rezoning exercise is still ongoing. And for the brown field sites, actually many of the new development areas and many of the proposed development land, you know Northern Metropolis, they will be formed by conversion of the brown field sites because most of the brown field sites are actually concentrated in the Northern Metropolis area. 

Chan: Right. KK, one last question I am going to ask you is about use of land. You talked about long-term, you talked about short-term, and we have enough on the greenbelt zones. But how about… recently I brought up a couple of times because a lot of viewers asked me, how about golf courses? Because in Hong Kong, we don’t have many golf courses, one of the thinking is take back some of the golf courses to building houses. So if you are going to have all these land available, why do we have to affect sort of sports development? Because what they are worried is after the golf courses, they may go to football fields, they may go to swimming pools, etc. what is your view on that?

Ling: Of course, you are talking about the Fanling golf course, or part of it.

Chan: Part of it, yes.

Ling: Actually I personally walk into the golf course several times and I found that the ecology there is quite valuable. There are a number of very valuable mature trees, many of them are rare species, and there is a large number or large concentration of ancestral graves. 

Chan: Okay.

Ling: That is some sort of our cultural heritage. So I think we have to be careful when we move development into the golf course. 

Chan: Right. KK, that is all the time we have, time flies. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how the new administration can streamline procedures, so that we have more buildings and better living. And all of you, have a good week, and see you next time!