Following our Long Keng illegal development exposé in July, we have been contacted by a landowner whose plot of land is amongst those currently fenced off and being developed on.
This small business owner in his 50’s, who wishes to remain unnamed, has been living in the UK for approximately four decades, only last returning to Hong Kong 10 years ago when his father passed away. The plot of land is under his mother’s name, so he has simply kept it in his family. But in July, he received a letter from the Planning Department stating that there was illegal landfill occurring on his land, and he needed to revert the land to its original state or face legal consequences.
As he has been away from Hong Kong for so long, there is no way for him to sort out such matters half a world away. In addition, the property developers who have seized the stretch of valley land in Long Keng have since erected tall metal fences, presumably to block the development from public view. Only residents whose houses happen to lie within its confines have been issued keys to pass through.
The landowner has contacted various government departments to seek advice, but they have proved less than helpful to him. In his letter to us, he said the Planning Department’s response was that the landowner needs to restore the land, regardless of who actually authorised the operation. They suggested he fence off his land so the developers will not be able to gain access anymore. However, to the landowner, this is obviously superfluous advice as 1) he is not residing in Hong Kong, and 2) even if he did return, the area in question has already been barred by the developers themselves, who may have already built several houses on the plot by then.
The Central Enforcement and Prosecution Section of the Planning Department gave us a similar response. The landowners will be the ones issued first with Enforcement Notices requiring discontinuance of the unauthorised development, and then Reinstatement Notices requiring the removal of fill materials and regrassing the land. Non-compliance will result in prosecution action after a grace period of three months.
It is completely up to the landowner to ensure that his land cannot be used by others for such purposes. “The landowner has a due responsibility to ensure that no unauthorised development occurs on his land, even if he has claimed that the site has been trespassed by someone unknown to him,” a senior information officer told us.
Reaching out to the Sai Kung Rural Committee ended in the same vein. Chairman Wong Shui Sang has personally gone to Long Keng to view the situation and concluded there is nothing much he could do apart from advising the landowner to hire a surveyor to get a better understanding of the circumstances, and then fence the land off.
The landowner was understandably not satisfied with the outcome as he feels he had unwittingly become a victim but received “no sympathy or help from the government”.
It was this lackluster response from governing bodies that has disheartened the landowner. “In the UK, we have organisations like the citizen’s advice bureau to help us. Also, in the first place, you’d never really get something like this happening in the UK – people go by the books and won’t just steal your property outright. But in Hong Kong, if you are well connected, you can do anything, even forcing people to sell you their land” he laments.
Having left Hong Kong aged 14, he admits to not fully understanding or being able to reconcile with such differences, but does concede that it is “cultural – that’s just the way things are”. He hopes that by publicising his case, the government would reflect on how transparency is severely lacking and work on plugging the loopholes in the system. “It isn’t fair that landowners like me cannot do anything to defend themselves. There must be hundreds of others in my situation.”
Herve Bouvresse, Long Keng’s non-indigenous village representative, has more to say on the matter. Having openly opposed the development, he has himself been a victim of a series of intimidation tactics occurring within the village – cars scratched, tires punctured, and houses vandalised. All because Bouvresse represents a fraction of the public who want to stop the development from occurring on a Green Belt area.
Bouvresse showed us a map obtained from a Sai Kung real estate agency which indicates how a large swatch of land has already been designated as road access and car parking spaces. Unfortunately, he thinks he is fighting a losing battle.
“A lot of the villagers are in on it; they have already sold their lands and received money from the developers. The Planning Department is simply corrupt. The only untainted section is probably the Lands Department, but they have too little power to do anything substantial.”
In the face of opposition from all sides, all Bouvresse can do is halt the development as much as he can. So far, he has managed to file petitions to stop the building of roads for lorries and heavy goods vehicles in three different areas. With no road access for now, the development has been experiencing delays; they have had to forklift their machinery over fences and barriers into the building site.
Bouvresse has informed the police, but sluggish arrival time and being told that the developers need to be caught in the act before any action can be taken has also disheartened him. Besides, the area in question is extensive; it will simply be a matter of time before the developers quietly find somewhere else to enable their access.
Faced with the looming realisation that the development cannot be stopped in full, the next step in Bouvresse’s plans is to negotiate with the developers. “I can only hope they will agree to leaving some of the Green Belt intact. It would be a terrible shame otherwise; my children grew up playing in the wetland, and other children deserve to grow up connected with nature too, but how can that happen if all the land’s being eaten up by urban development?”
When told about the landowner’s story, he shook his head, “He will most probably end up selling his land – it’s too much trouble. To be honest, I’ll end up selling and leaving Long Keng in the future as well. I love the place, but at what cost? I’ll just do what I can to leave a bit of natural legacy behind.”