Hong Kong – The Front Line of Urban Planning’s New Debate

Hong Kong’s search for much-needed living space is training its sights on the southern Chinese city’s most prestigious golf club, as lawmakers push to have the site redeveloped for housing.

Experts predict a looming clash between the Hong Kong Golf Club’s exclusive membership and large sections of the financial hub’s seven-million population forced to live in cramped conditions.

“Why would we sacrifice the welfare of the people… (for) the recreational needs of a chosen few?” said lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who is at the forefront of the campaign to build on the 170 hectare (420 acre) area of land in the city’s north.

“Housing certainly has a much, much higher priority than playing golf,” he told AFP.

Stars of the game including Tom Watson and Rory McIlroy have triumphed on Fanling’s lush fairways over the years but sporting sentiment isn’t preventing local politicians from calling for the Hong Kong Open venue to be replaced by public housing.

Graphic map locating an elite Hong Kong golf course, focus of a push by lawmakers to turn the 170-hectare site into flats.

Mr Cheung was one of 12 members of the city’s lawmaking body, the Legislative Council, who passed a motion recently urging the government to allocate the land close to the border with China for two “new town” residential developments.

The 54-hole, three-course site, has come into focus because its decades-long lease is up in 2020.

A government spokeswomen told AFP the land would be included in a “study to explore further development potential in New Territories North, which is expected to commence in early 2014”.

The Hong Kong Golf Club, which was formed in 1889 under the name The Royal Hong Kong Golf club — making it one of the oldest golfing societies outside of Great Britain and Ireland, paid a one-off premium to lease the land.

It has been reported that it also pays HK$1 (13 US cents) a year on top of that, although the government has refused to confirm this.

But observers say the contention over the golfing enclave, in a city known for its free market, is symbolic of a shift in people’s attitudes away from favouring business over the wider public interest.

“People find privileges more questionable now,” Chung Kim-wah of the Centre for Social Policy Studies at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, told AFP.

“People now are quite opposed to elitism. People are also reconsidering the pro-merchant, pro-economic growth mentality as they demand a higher level of fairness and equality,” he added.

“Coupled with the pressing issue on the lack of space, people of Hong Kong have questioned the existence of private clubs.”

Chung believes a growing clamour for “fairness” will put pressure on the semi-autonomous government, handpicked by Beijing since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, to address a widening income gap in a city dominated by a wealthy few.

More than 170,000 people live in cramped subdivided flats, a government-commissioned study found in May, underlining the scale of the city’s housing crisis.

Land supply is short and house prices have been exacerbated by an influx of capital from China that is pushing up prices.

The government has in recent years implemented a number of measures to rein in prices, including increasing resale costs for non-local buyers but more flats need to be built.

Officials have targeted a net increase of 450,000 apartments over the next 10 years.

When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was asked last month whether the golf course would house these, he said the target could only be met by “not ignoring any piece of land”.