Lantau Concept Plan meeting

A couple of days ago, I joined environmentalists from groups including the Living Islands Movement, Green Lantau Association, WWF Hong Kong, Kadoorie Farm, and Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, for a government briefing on the just launched Concept Plan for Lantau, produced by the Lantau Development Taskforce.

Proved quite a meeting, and it's hard to know just how to summarise. But to begin with, my overriding impression is: THERE IS NO PLAN! Nope, there's the word "plan" in the title, but the more we tried to look at it, the more it dissolved, broke down into a mishmash of various projects that are broadly based on the strategy to have development on north Lantau - where it appeared the highway to hell [oops, Zhuhai that should be] is a given - and "conservation" in the south.

A certain Alice might have felt right at home in the meeting. "Curiouser and curiouser" she could have remarked, as logic broke down, and the English language was twisted and warped. ("Plan," "conservation," "ecotourism," "sustainable development" seem to have become plastic terms, used here as they perhaps seem appropriate and never mind what they actually mean.)

We began with a Powerpoint presentation on the "Plan". Tons of potential projects were covered; I'll give a few here, but for all those publicly announced within the plan, plus chance to respond, see the govt info service's Concept Plan for Lantau Island: Public Consultation.

Concept Plan for Lantau - or Concrete Plan?

Had quick summary of existing and ongoing developments on Lantau - the airport, Disneyland etc. Then, on to the planned projects: the highway linking Hong Kong to Zhuhai, a logistics centre on land to be reclaimed near Tai Ho, a "tourism node" (with entertainment, maybe an indoor beach for goodness sake), a second theme park (just mistyped that as "perk" - maybe more appropriate, as surely a perk for developers), perhaps a motor racing circuit, also resorts at Cheung Sha and Tai Long Wan on south Lantau. Facelift for Mui Wo, preservation of Tai O might be rather better, but plan also envisaged Tai O population roughly doubling pretty soon. Also north Lantau country park extension, some cycle tracks and eco-walks, maybe a marine park along west coast.

Phew! - that's an awful lot of development for an place once known as the "Island of Prayer". It looked almost as if there's so much development planned for north Lantau, this coast will sink under the weight of all the concrete.

The presentation merrily - and I thought smugly - concluded that the plan meets the principles of sustainable development.

Presentation over, it was time for discussion. Even though there were ideas for questions to be taken in nice, orderly fashion, this only partly happened, as people couldn't hold back questions, objections, extra points (and here, I'm afraid I just couldn't sit quiet for long periods, try as I might; just too much seemed barmy to me; my apologies to all present if I was way over the top).

For myself, I wondered how the plan can be sustainable if it assumes the Hong Kong - Zhuhai bridge is a given, especially as we've lately been told this will only be for road traffic, a railway proving too expensive (we're told; just where is the cost analysis, and does it factor in health impacts?). What, I wondered, are sustainable levels of smog?

No answers here. Though it did turn out that sustainability is yet to be assessed.

So, the panel was asked, what of cumulative impacts from all projects - would they be assessed? Yes, but only as part of each project's environmental assessment; ie on piecemeal basis, with no over-arching review.

Another question from floor concerned a new container terminal, under consideration for northwest Lantau (evidently on reclaimed land). Why isn't this in the Concept Plan? Turned out this is only being considered. But, next questioners asked, we've just been told that other projects like the logistics park are under consideration too. So, why are these projects in, and the container terminal is out? (Especially as container terminal seems vital for bridge to be financial success.) Well, if anybody in the room - government officials included - understood this, they didn't make any of the rest of us any the wiser.

- belated point I've realised. A newspaper article recently cited estimate that each big container ship belches as much fumes as 40,000 cars. Interesting, then, to see how new container terminal can figure into "sustainable development" plans. What will future generations make of that?

(Note here: the Lantau Development Taskforce was evidently conceived by Chief Executive Mr Tung Chee-hwa, and is chaired by Financial Secretary Mr Henry Tang; neither was present at the meeting, and it seemed the decision makers were absent. As one person put it, seemed they'd left the lambs to the slaughter - so I had some sympathy some with the officials who were present.)

Then, it emerged that each project is being assessed outside the Concept Plan - bridge mainly by transport dept, Cheung Sha resort by Tourism Commission etc etc. So, what is actually covered in the plan; what is really up for discussion, with potential for major change or even project cancellation? Answer not at all clear; responses will be forwarded, but whether action will be taken appears to be anyone's guess.

Another question was whether there have been needs analyses done for each project. Some fudging here; but maybe, albeit maybe not thorough. We'd have to hope, then, that better than the needs analyses for Hunghom private housing blocks, Cyberport, Harbour Fest (all financial flops for Hongkongers, but originally ballyhooed by govt - Henry Tang was a proponent of Harbour Fest at least), Hei Ling Chau Superprison (shelved after outcry), as well as potentially problematic West Kowloon Cultural Centre.

Some more snippets:

Heard from one of the panel that the plan is a "vision" for Lantau. "No, it's a nightmare," came a remark - my thoughts exactly.

We were told the plan meets (or really, the planners hope it meets) criteria of Susdev21, a sustainable development strategy drawn up by govt. At its heart, this says, "Sustainable Development in Hong Kong balances social, economic, environmental and resource needs, both for present and future generations, simultaneously achieving a vibrant economy, social progress and a high quality environment, locally, nationally and internationally, through the efforts of the community and the Government." Hmm...

Questioned re conservation, which might be stronger for some hillsides but not for the more ecologically significant sites such as marshes and sea grass beds, panel had no satisfactory answer. (No reserves to be created; just to rely on SSSI statuses etc.) Nor any ideas of how it's possible to protect Tai Ho Stream, yet reclaim big chunk of land by its mouth.

One panelist even suggested those of us attending might help, as "you may know Lantau better than us". Good grief! - you mean the taskforce is cobbling together this "plan" without in-depth knowledge of the island? So how is much of the planning done - sticking pins in maps? Living Islands Movement had offered to help them months ago - but the taskforce got on with its job without such help, presumably in offices a long way from Lantau.

Well, there was plenty more that seemed amiss. Overall mood of people attending was clear to the panel. And one attempt from an official to imply that plans were unpopular simply as people present lived on Lantau ("not in my backyard") backfired - as was aimed at someone who lives in, err, Tai Po.

Anyways, the meeting closed at 6pm, after a very busy couple of hours.

Time for me to stop rabbiting on, too; other than remarking that I wonder if this'll lead to even more wrangling than we' had over Hei Ling Chau, and adding to West Kowloon grief.
(Idea: if we're to have a casino, tourism node, even logistics centre, why not put on West Kowloon? If these will be profitable, the developer can build these instead of housing there.)

DocMartin

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