The Battle for Hoi Ha Part III: End of the line for Hoi Ha

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November 27 was D-Day for Hoi Ha. The gazetted OZP comes into effect barring a direct intervention from the CE office. The fate of the treasured jewel of our country park is the bellwether for Hong  Kong’s commitment to its natural heritage.

November 27th has been referred to, in some mass media, as the end of the consultation period on the gazetted Outline Zoning Plan (OZP) for Hoi Ha. This is not quite right. It is a time for people to once again inform various players who can make a change in the ozp to do something. Anything. But as one member of the Town Planning Board told Harbour Times, there are at best minor changes, if  any, to the OZP at the end of the three month period. He had never seen major changes. On November 27th, the gazetted plan effectively becomes law. And so it goes with Hoi Ha.

The 3 year period leading up to establishment of the ozp was the time for contributions and many were made. The OZP is the best effort of the Town Planning Board to balance the requests of interested parties. As our member told us, everyone is always unhappy. No one gets exactly what  they want. In this case, it seems like some are going to get a lot more of what they want than others.

Protecting Hoi Ha – the long shot
In the final days of the OZP, efforts by conservationists have become more pronounced. The various ‘Save Hoi Ha’ groups have gone to their preferred channels to drum up support. All are earnest and are likely to be outgunned by the invisible and elusive foe that seeks to thwart their will.

The environmentalist-conservationist camps been split for some time. They break down into two camps – probably to both their detriment. To the impassionate outsider, it becomes clear to see how they could work together in a coordinated strategy to be effective in pursuing their political goals. In a manner reminiscent of Hong Kong’s fractious democrats, divided they fall.

Hoi Ha - 2SAVE HOI HA: Many Environment groups worry that the future development in Hoi Ha will seriously damage the environment.

Both have produced voluminous reports detailing various aspects of the local environment. Both are driven by long term residents of the neighbourhoods, non-indigenous Hong Kongers. Indigenous villagers, few in number on the ground, engage both warily. They differ in their focus (animals vs. hydrology vs. marine water quality vs. village impact and more) but both broadly want the same thing – to avoid having 60-80 or more houses, luxury development or small houses, introduced to the most ecologically sensitive parts of this natural gem, effectively destroying the unique natural heritage of the site.

They have been able to make common cause with politicians aligned with their interests and values like Paul Zimmerman Together, they have been the most successful in capturing the attention of weekenders and the broader Hong Kong public about the situation in Hoi Ha. Their efforts are amateur and grassroots and have attracted interested people. Rather than just out of place tree-hugging foreigners, they attract a local following. At their rally October, 3 of 4 people on microphones were Caucasian – them and Paul Zimmerman. Another Hoi Ha resident was a shy, but effective voice in Cantonese. But of ~140 people who marched to their rally that day only about another 3 or 4 were not Chinese.

They would claim the fight wasn’t about them, but their passion matters in bringing people on board. In these final days, they have been making repeated pleas to increase their survey count and for people to submit letters to the Town Planning Board – the authority governing the OZP. Their goals? To implement a range of zoning tools that will create buffers around sensitive areas (using Conservation Areas and Green Zones) and dramatically reducing the planned expansion of the  V-Zone – the area designated for the building of village houses.

They avoided the big ask for the gold standard of protection, Country Park designation, thinking it was unrealistic. Their meticulously researched work, attempting to correct past misinformation was meant to convince right thinking people on the Town Planning Board and the AFCD to change the OZP. One gets a sense they may be too earnest, too genuine for this political battle. They know the enemy,  but not how to fight him. Instead, they’ve had differences with fellow conservationists.

Defend Hoi Ha’s Action Group is professionally common
The other ‘on the ground’ conservation group has also produced what has been a better popularised study that revealed many of the twists in this tale. Robin Bradbeer and Paul Hodgson both have a long history of working with government and are part of the Professional Commons network, represented in LegCo by Charles Mok and Kenneth Leung. Their report, in long and short form, has been better packaged and presented. Previous issues of Harbour Times have used their maps to illustrate the situation on the ground.

Probably the most interesting part of the report, the result of painstaking land transaction review, reveals the real story behind so-called houses for villagers. Villagers in fact sell them off to developers and cash out long before the property has even been zoned for building. In Hoi Ha, almost all of the new village zone has been sold off and was even years ago being pre-sold in Japan, prompting the whole Development Planning Area (DPA) 3 year process, leading to the OZP.

This group did go for the gold standard from Day 1: Country Park status. They are pushing for it still. They are better at working the more official channels, garnering support from LegCo members. They have a youth wing arising from the many education programmes they have run in the area, developing a Hoi Ha fan base.

Divided they fall
Both groups seem open to a small, ‘reasonable’ amount of development in areas away from the most ecologically sensitive fresh and ocean waterfronts. However, they differ on results of their reports and ecological value of various parts of the neighbourhood. These differences seem to pale in comparison of the political hill they are trying to climb to get someone in power to pull the trigger on saving the area and stopping development. Whether it is the typically uncontrolled and disastrous small house development, or a regulated luxury housing project (both of which seem to be in the realm of possibility – another bone of contention between them), the sensitivity of the marine park to either is agreed upon by both.

They need the support of the political community who are, frankly, distracted by bigger fish to fry. As mentioned, Paul Zimmerman,has been the most consistently engaged as part of his larger mission to have sensible urban and rural planning for Hong Kong. Other politicians may pop up with a rare question in LegCo or comment in the media, but are too distracted by other issues to keep the pressure on.

The saviours must look for other allies. Their opponents need only inertia.

Inertia means bulldozers
The opponents, those who would build, seem to be carrying the day for all that one can find them. First, the indigenous villagers across the various country park villages are a diverse and elusive bunch. The vast majority of future claimants cannot be found, or perhaps have not been generated yet. Village Representatives (VRs) regularly claim the need for scores, if not literally hundreds of future spots for villagers to ostensibly come back and live in their village. The fact that most of these spots are bought up by developers before they are even zoned. Some inherit property from their parents, sell it off to developers, then claim their rights, cashing in twice.

The rare villagers that actually live in the villages and have real lives there are tight lipped on all matters. There seems to be a sense of fear, as if speaking to journalists will bring reprisal from those with serious money at stake. One resident told HT off the record of having a car windshield smashed in in reprisal for complaining about the rampant claims of ‘ding’ rights from people with no connection to the village. Police told her this was the village – it’s not like the city.

In the case of Hoi Ha, a small group of companies, most connected to each other, Vantix Ltd., Group Wise Investment Development Ltd., Eastern Island Land Development Co. Ltd., Xinhua Bookshop Xiang Jiang Group Ltd., Sino Joint Ltd., and Ever Luck Development Ltd. own the land classified V-zone in the OZP. The key player is a director, Mr. Lau Ming-shum. Repeated attempts to reach him and other principles proved fruitless, including a visit to their offices. These people need no campaign, having quietly bought up the land and managed to convince the VR to claim his ‘villagers’ need the space to live in the village. The Town Planning Board members are deliberately kept in the dark about who owns the land they are zoning to avoid a conflict of interest. Unless activists track them down one by one, they won’t get that information in their briefing packages provided by the Lands Department. The developers just need to sit tight and wait for no changes in the OZP.

Hoi Ha - 3A BIG PLAYER: Lau Ming-shum, Director of Treasure Spot, opened a property company (with KH logo) in Tai Po.

WWF, Town Planning Board and AFCD
WWF has long recognised the unique character of Hoi Ha and its marine park. Harbour Times spoke to Dr. Lau and they made their position clear (see our interview with WWF). While they seemed to keep their heads down for some time, given their collaboration with villagers across the New Territories, they are true to their mission and recognise the way in which the rallying cry of rights to housing has been widely abused in the pursuit of easy money (HT’s words – not theirs). Their voice carries weight and may sway some influential figures.

As mentioned, the Town Planning Board rarely changes its mind. Given how it operates, it is not surprising. Masses of volunteer members must review information presented to them by the Lands Department after each round of consultation. They may meet monthly, miss multiple meetings and review more than thirty distinct issues at a meeting. HT, when asking about a zoning decision regarding Hoi Ha, had one member think, think some more and think again before he could say “I think I remember that one. I may have missed that meeting …” He is a scientist expert in a field of hydrology, a concern given sewage treatment in potential developments fouling the marine park. With so many details on so many projects, Board members get their information from the Lands Department professionals who present it fait accompli, supposedly having carefully considered all submissions and done their research. No one can gainsay them. No one, that is, unless there is a such a political brouhaha that ignoring protestors is impossible. But protests about almost everything are routine, so minor protests are ignored.

“To assess whether an enclave is suitable for incorporation into a country park, afcd will carry out assessments in accordance with the established principles and criteria adopted by the Country and Marine Parks Board (CMPB) in 2011, which include conservation value, landscape and aesthetic value, recreation potential, size, proximity to existing country parks, land status and existing land use. We have recently completed the assessment on the suitability of incorporating Hoi Ha into the Sai Kung West Country Park and we will submit our recommendations to the CMPD for deliberation in due course.” AFCD, November 12

The afcd is a focus of campaigners and many see them as the last hope. If the Agricultural, Fisheries Conservation Department recommends that the Chief Executive declare an area Country Park, he has the power to do so and, it is believed, is likely to heed them. HT went to the source, but the AFCD was typically coy, only giving written answers (in good speed, to be fair) to written questions (see sidebar). Given the heat the Government has taken for not heeding their advisors on the hktv saga, it  is to be expected they are cautious. They may still very well make such a recommendation in the future – or not. If the recommendation goes to the Lands Department for the Town Planning Board, it is unlikely it would result in change. If the Chief Executive, it is uncertain.

The view from Tamar
Hoi Ha is a long way from Tamar and must be harder to see past the hktv and other protesters exercising their right to protest. There have been no ‘Save Hoi Ha’ protests on the CE’s doorstep. The Heung Yee Kuk is a powerful lobby. The government’s recent efforts to zone parts of three villages as  country park have roused the Heung Yee Kuk LegCo representative, Lau Wong-fat, from his  legislative torpor of the past 20 years to introduce his first bill. Ever. His constituency is threatening to arrive in Tamar next month.

The government inherited this mess. The best of intentions by colonial administrators pre-handover, with an element of kicking the can down the road, now mean that largely unchecked Village Representatives (VR) can sign off almost anyone as a native villager. Given the lax rules and checks,  there is no surprise that many suspect and accuse (off the record without proof, of course) some VR’s of charging up to HK$1m for the right to build. With a cost to build of about HK$5m and a HK$15-16m retail of some developments, all the conditions for abuse are in place.

What was originally described as an ‘easement’ to provide a temporary solution to allowing villagers rights to housing has become, in many people’s minds, a hotly contested right the Heung Yee Kuk will defend with all its might. If public pressure were great enough or Hong Kong had an elected government, the ExCo might decide it worth the political capital to challenge the Kuk in the courts, win or lose, to resolve this legacy problem. However, at present, it appears the balance of power lies with the villagers and developers who, with more to win and lose, can commit more resources to the fight. This is classic public choice theory.

Environmentalist campaigners frantically ramped up efforts to the deadline. Developers just have to sit back and wait.

A revolution is needed
The Government is, no doubt, watching the situation carefully. They government has, surprisingly, expanded the country park into three enclaves, generating hope they may do so again. But on this occasion, barring a revolution of national education or Article 23 proportions though, they are unlikely to move. The masses out to fight Stamp Duties and the hktv decisions have not hit those thresholds and not yet gotten results.

There may come a change that would alter the situation. A more directly elected Chief Executive could change the calculus of electoral considerations to make the environmental lobby, or the weak preference of many more important than the strong interest of a few. The environmental lobby, after seeing the destruction of more sites, may up their game in terms of motivating people to take to Tamar to show their commitment to our natural parks. A younger, more nature inclined generation may eventually make conservation a higher priority.

However, this week, a OZP came to the end of its three month gazetting. Barring a direct intervention from the Chief Executive or people laying down in front of bulldozers, Hoi Ha could very well be lost. While individual building projects may,  r may not (probably not), have controls enforced on them, the outlook is not good.

It will be a small tragedy for the people of Hoi Ha, an intangible but real loss for Hong Kong, and a massive payday for the elusive developer, Mr. Lau, who has made a specialty out of developing this  area. His next target is Pak Sha O – currently the beginning of their DPA. Pak Sha O’s six dwellings house precisely zero Pak Sha O villagers – all are rented out by indigenous owners. According to the vr, there are another 200 villagers with an urgent need to come back and live in this remote, no cell phone, no road access, village. All genuine indigenous villagers desperate to reconnect with their heritage and hear the sound of the nature around them. Or maybe the sound of money.

The series:
The Battle for Hoi Ha Part I: The Bellwether
The Battle for Hoi Ha Part II: Zoning out
The Battle of Hoi Ha Part III: End of the Line for Hoi Ha