Development and the Environment

In Ordinary Gweilo’s post “Out through the Window”, he says: “In Hong Kong (and large parts of China) that means designing buildings that can be kept cool in the summer without excessive use of air-conditioning. It's not happening, is it? Developers prefer to throw up apartments with thin walls and hardly any insulation. Even if you are sceptical about global warming, surely it has to be a good thing to be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter without having to pay a small fortune to CLP or HK Electric?”

Another blogger Daai Tou Laam has a post “Government Listens to Elite, Masses Can Suck on a Tailpipe” where he delivers a news release about the Town Planning Board’s rejection of an application by the environmental group, Green Sense, to reduce the density of a West Kowloon site and to include a 10-meter wind corridor in the proposed development. The rejection apparently came through because of objections from the developer and owner of the site, Sun Hung Kai Properties, on grounds that the application infringes on their private property right and could threaten investor confidence.

Then there was Li Ka Shing’s comment on TV that if the density of a development site were reduced, it would adversely impact government’s treasury as well as citizens’ income.

Here are some observations:

Thin walls without any insulation means less quantities of concrete and would be a plus on cost-savings for developers. Air-conditioning charges would be the homeowners’ or tenants’ liability once the built apartments are sold, and thus are not the developers’ concern.

Lower density eats right into developers’ profits and is and must remain a taboo. Developers would naturally not want to comply with any of the environmentalists’ requests that would cost them more money, especially if market conditions do not allow them to pass on the additional cost to consumers.

Li was not wrong in pointing out that government would also stand to lose in terms of land revenue as lower density on sites would mean lower land premium receipts for government.

Can it be any clearer that from the developers’ standpoint, cost and profit concerns always trump environment concerns?

On the other hand, if there are no specific environmental regulations either in the building code or in the lease conditions, then a developer does not have any legal responsibility to comply. By the same token, based on the concept of the rule of law, government is also contractually obliged to let a developer build to whatever density ratio that is written in the Conditions of Sale (i.e. lease conditions) of a site and under current building and planning regulations once that site is sold (as in the above case).

All in all, the above situation and incidence suggest there is an urgent need for a revamp, with public input, of existing land development policy, building and planning regulations in light of the growing social demand for greater efforts on environmental protection and more livable neighborhoods. It may also be time for government to review the sustainability of a land revenue-reliant fiscal structure.