Brownfields in Time: Tracing the course of Brownfields expansion in the New Territories
Research background and aims:
Brownfields have proliferated in the New Territories since the 1980s. It adversely affects rural landscape and living environment, and quite often there are unauthorised developments that compromise town planning. However, the Government has remained oblivious to the rapid spread of brownfields, and resort to passive and piecemeal measures without a comprehensive policy. This research aims to track the proliferation of brownfields between 1993 and 2017, and through case studies discuss the causes of their significant spread, with a view to lay the foundation for public discussion on a brownfield policy.
Even though there is a vast area of brownfields, their potential as a land supply option has been seriously downplayed by the authority during the land supply consultation spearheaded by the Task Force on Land Supply in 2018, irregardless of the solid “brownfield-first” consensus formed over the past few years. In view of the situation, this research provides the most updated statistics and information on the amount, distributions and uses of brownfields, which are essential to assessing their development potential as well as the feasibility of relocating existing brownfield operations.
By using geographic information system and map tools, such as ArcGIS, Google Map and Google Earth, the research team selected, identified and highlighted the brownfields and their areas, categories and distributions in 1993, 2003 and 2017. By so doing, the research team was then able to track the proliferation and the changes of brownfields across the years.
By identifying the features shown in the satellite images, the brownfield operations were divided into six categories: “container yards”, “uncovered vehicle parking”, “open storage and recycling ”, “covered warehouses/workshops”, “filled land or destroyed land” and “other”. Within “open storage and recycling”, the research team further identified heavy equipment operations involving storage of heavy-duty cranes and parking of crane lorries. The above aimed to provide a basis to assess land requirement of relocating brownfield operations.
Total area: In 2017, there was 1,521 hectares of brownfields in the New Territories, which is a 92% increase from the 792 hectares in 1993, almost doubled in sise in 24 years’ time. 728 hectares of brownfield emerged between 2003 and 2017, representing almost half of the total stock of brownfields in 2017. The rapid spread seriously affected the rural environment.
Current uses: The fastest growing category was “covered warehouses/workshops”, up from 139 hectares (17.6%) in 1993 to 647 hectares (42.5%) in 2017, which occupied the lion’s share of all brownfield categories in 2017. “Container yards”, which was the second-most common brownfield category in 1993, faced a significant decline to just 7.9% among all categories in 2017, in tandem with the decline of road freight in recent years.
Distribution: Yuen Long District had all along topped the list of all districts with the largest amount of brownfields. In 2017, there was 1,072 hectares (70.5%) of brownfields in Yuen Long, followed by North District (306 hectares, 20.1%). Comparing the percentages of the increase between 1993 and 2017 across the top four districts, both districts have seen increases higher than the territory-wide average (100.6% adn 94.9% respectively).
Original planned uses: With reference to the zoning plans used by the Town Planning Board (TPB), only 215 and 49 hectares of brownfields were located in “Open Storage” and “Industrial (Group D)” respectively in 2017, in other words, only 17.4% of brownfields complied with the planning intention of their locality in 2017. Among the rest of brownfields situated in “wrong” zonings,200 hectares were located in “Agriculture” zone, and 195 hectares were located in “Open Space”, “Government, Institution or Community” and “Recreation” zones. There were another 195 hectares located in “Residential” zonings, meaning that the proliferation of brownfields has also threatened the provision of housing and community facilities.
Potential as a land supply option: In 2017, there were a total of 1,023 hectares of brownfields which have not been included in existing New Development Areas and the “210 potential sites for housing purposes” identified by the Government. Subject to appropriate relocation and remediation measures, brownfields could be seen as a potential source of land supply. This research also identified only 63 hectares of brownfield operations (4.1% of the total in 2017) were related to heavy equipment operations that would inevitably face grave difficulties in relocation to multi- storey buildings, and therefore it should not be a hurdle to relocating brownfield operations as a whole.
Case Study and Analysis
Lack of Enforcement Power: Since the amendment of the Town Planning Ordinance (TPO) in 1991, the TPB has designated Development Permission Area Plans (DPAPs) against unauthorised developments in various New Territories rural areas. However, there are still areas not covered by DPAPs that the Planning Department (PlanD) has no authority to take enforcement action. In these areas brownfields have expanded significantly, for instance in areas near San Tin Barracks it has expanded fourfold to 10 hectares, and tenfold near Ng Tung River in Sheung Shui. Both areas have never been covered by any DPAPs.
Regularising Unauthorised Development through Government-initiated Rezoning: The study found that there was a large area of brownfields near Ha Tsuen Road since 1993. While they were suspected to be unauthorised developments (being non-compliant with the zoning but without planning permission), they were left there without effective monitoring for the whole time. Instead, PlanD took the opportunity in 2008 to regularise the brownfield operations by rezoning 36 hectares of the area from “Recreation” (REC) zone to “Open Storage” (OS) zone, 17.8 hectares of which were occupied by brownfield operations without planning permission, thereby regularising those unauthorised developments. For the remaining area with the original zoning remained, average approval rate of applications for planning permission for tolerating brownfield operations rose drastically from 52% from 1991 to 2007, to 90% from 2008 to 2017. On a territory-wide scale, the corresponding approval rate has also risen since 2005 to 94% in 2010. It has sparkled concerns on TPB’s loosened approval criteria.
Inadequate Inspection: In Hung Lung Hang of North District, the total area of brownfields increased significantly by almost 12 hectares from 2003 to 2017, even though the area was covered by a DPAP. Predominantly zoned as “Agriculture” and “Green Belt”, many of the brownfield operations did not have valid planning permission. There was also a brownfield cluster in Yuen Long that has expanded fivefold from 1993 to 2017, mainly contributed by similar unauthorised developments, but were largely unchecked by the authority: 31 enforcement notices were issued but only one required a payment of fine.
Turning a blind eye to the “Destroy First, Develop Later” practice: In 1997 a subsidiary company of Sun Hung Kai bought a farmland in Yuen Long and allegedly turned them into brownfields without proper planning permission. Instead of rectifying it, the Government facilitated Sun Hung Kai’s land exchange request in 2007 for a residential development. This has encouraged the “destroy first, develop later” approach commonly adopted by developers which would aggravate the spread of brownfields.
To contain the proliferation of brownfields, it is important to adopt the “brownfield-first” principle: to accord a priority of using brownfields as a land supply option. This approach would make good use of the ecologically-damaged land while avoiding the spread of brownfield operations to the remaining farmland in the New Territories due to poor planning. To holistically deal with the brownfield problem, the Government should plug the loophole in the planning system, invoke the Lands Resumption Ordinance to take back the ownership of brownfields to facilitate relocation, redevelopment and remediation with a view to have a better rural planning, to release land resources, and to improve the quality of life of the residents in the New Territories.
Short-term measures (within 1 to 2 years): Conduct a freezing survey with a view to obtain a baseline of brownfield operations and to assess sectoral demand. It also serves as a basis for government to rectify unauthorised developments. In respect of increasing transparency of the planning permission assessment process, clear and unambiguous criteria should be adopted and the rationales of decisions should be made public in order to enhance public scrutiny.
Mid-term measures (within 3 to 6 years): Through amending the TPO, increase the penalty for unauthorised developments to ensure deterrent effect, and to designate DPAPs to the remaining areas which are without adequate protection so as to empower the Planning Authority to take necessary actions to contain the proliferation of brownfields.
Long-term Measures (within 3 to 10 years): Strategically relocate existing brownfield operations to various locations, such as “The Boxes” (a seriously under- utilised site designated as shopping outlets) in San Tin, and closed landfills that are without planned uses. In order to make brownfields remediation financially viable, it is suggested that the Government to set up a “Brownfields Remediation Fund” (BRF) supported by virement of funds from the Capital Works Reserve Fund (CWRF) and fines collected due to carrying out unauthorised developments. The BRF is dedicated to pay for the cost of environmental remediation of the resumed brownfields.