Your land is my land: The LRO’s biggest fans may understand it the least

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Policymakers and advocates are urging the government to invoke the Lands Resumption Ordinance (LRO) to annex land held by developers, reportedly some 1,000 hectares of farmland in the New Territories. But they may have a weak grasp of how the LRO works and what are reasonable grounds to invoke it.

Last week in LegCo, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was asked why the government is not using the ordinance to increase land supply for more housing, Lam replied the ordinance cannot be invoked at the government’s will and that evidence must be sufficient to provide grounds for it.

“Using it without thorough consideration to resume farmland and brownfield sites in the New Territories might trigger judicial review that can take as long as ten years,” Lam warned.

She repeatedly made clear that the government has no intention to invoke the ordinance.

The Lands Resumption Ordinance (Cap 124), by definition, exists to facilitate the resumption of government lands required for public purposes. By means of land resumption, the government exercises statutory power to compulsorily take over ownership of private land for achieving a public purpose.

The justification thereby rests on what what a “public purpose” means – and if it is significant enough to override private ownership.

“There is no clear boundary or definition as to what a public purpose should be,” Dr. Simon Yau, associate professor from Department of Public Policy at City University, tells Harbour Times.

“In the past, when the ordinance was used, the public purpose could be building roads and high-speed railway; something related to infrastructure,” Yau said. “But if it is for building more units for home buyers, I do not think that can be a solid reason.”

Yau said in the context of urban planning, invoking the ordinance can be justified when buildings are too old that they may pose risks to the environment and safety.

“And now we are talking about lacking land for affordable housing. Is it solid enough to constitute a public interest? Technically speaking, the government has no obligation to help people buy homes,” he added.

“Those who propose using this ordinance have a good intention, but they also need to think about the others who own the land. Their property ownership has to be protected and taken into consideration as well.”

Another potential problem of invoking this ordinance is that the use of the site resumed may not be entirely for public purpose at the end.

Policymaker James To Kun-sun of the Democratic Party said mixed land use or auctioning the land may violate the requirement of using the land for public purposes.

Leung Fuk-yuen, a policymaker who represents the rural villagers, also expressed his concern that the land resumed by the government in the New Territories would eventually be granted to developers for private housing. This will cause losses for the landowners.

Leung stressed that invoking the ordinance to resume the land in the New Territories is reasonable, but it should be handled fairly – compensation for farmland and brownfield sites should be the same.

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