Moving north: the making of Northern Metropolis in Hong Kong

  • Moving north: the making of Northern Metropolis in Hong Kong
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Eric Yu

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Eric Yu

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Perspective 2023 vol 2

Over the past decades, Hong Kong was often referred as one of the world’s most important financial centers. Being one of the most densely populated and economically vibrant regions in the world, Hong Kong has highly developed the growth of local population and economic development in the southern part of Hong Kong.

The existing northern part of Hong Kong consists of a significant amount of agricultural farms, villages and rural areas. With just one river away, Shenzhen, has experienced rapid development and urbanization with many prestige high rise buildings. Under the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy launched by the HKSAR government, Hong Kong will collaborate with other Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area cities, Shenzhen in particular, to promote closer, deeper and more thorough co-operation for creating better development potential and opportunities. It can strengthen the synergy effect and paving the way for Hong Kong to better integrate into the country’s overall development.

A Vivid Metropolis Occupying 30,000 Hectares of Land

Under this ambitious plan, the government will expand the Northern Economic Belt and encompasses to cover new towns in Yuen Long, Tin Shui Wai and Fanling / Sheung Shui areas, various new development areas and development nodes in different planning and construction stages as well as their neighboring rural areas, making a holistic metropolis with a total area of 30,000 hectares. As an ideal destination for people to live in, work and travel, this metropolis will become Hong Kong’s second economic engine alongside the Harbour Metropolis.

Some of the key initiatives in this 10-year programme involves the construction of infrastructure including five railways, the provision of more cross-boundary transport between Hong Kong and Shenzhen and the increase of land supply to boost housing development as the top priority.

Driving Development to Increase Housing Supply

Hong Kong has also been facing a significant housing supply issue for many years. The housing demand far exceeds the available supply, leading to high property prices and a housing affordability crisis. The new strategy hopes to alleviate the limited land resources by providing more supply of housing units.

At present, the development projects planned or under planning in the Northern Metropolis are estimated to provide about 350,000 more residential units. Upon full development, the entire Northern Metropolis will house 905,000 to 926,000 residential units to accommodate a population of about 2.5 million.

To achieve this target, it is expected to complete a yearly average of 35,000 residential units in the coming ten years. Is this a realistic goal? Let’s take the dominant supplier, the public housing production, as an example. The number of public housing units completed in 2021 was only 25,814 and the figure even dropped to 10,587 in 2022 due to COVID. It reflected that the actual number of housing units completed was behind the target in the past few years. As a result, it is doubtful whether the target of 350,000 housing units can be reached under the Development Strategy. Currently, there are some challenges hindering the housing supply.

Actual Public Housing Production in the past 10 years

YearPublic Rental HousingSubsidised Sale FlatsTotal
2013/1414,057014,057
2014/159,93809,938
2015/1614,264014,264
2016/1711,2763,01714,293
2017/1813,41324813,661
2018/1817,6589,12126,779
2019/2010,1072,99813,105
2020/20216,2615,00011,261
2021/202221,7644,05025,814
2022/20238579,73010,587

References:
Hong Kong in Figures 2023 Edition from Census and Statistics Department
Actual Public Housing Production from Housing Department

Shortage of Labour in Construction

Firstly, the labour shortage is severe in Hong Kong. Contractors are facing challenges in finding skillful construction workers, leading to project delays. As the construction industry is less attractive to young workers, it is believed the shortage will keep growing in coming years. Thus, the construction industry has to look for other ways to overcome this situation. Incorporating some new construction technologies such as adopting Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) would be one of the ways out. The use of pre-fabricated modules helps speed up the construction, reduce labor requirements and improve quality control when comparing to traditional on-site construction methods. Besides, adapting suitable procurement method like ‘Design and Build’ may also help with this issue. The integration of design and construction expertise will definitely help streamline the project delivery process, improve coordination and probably reduce project timelines. Furthermore, collaborative efforts between the construction industry and the government can help identify labour needs, address regulatory challenges and develop strategies like ‘Labour Importation Scheme for the Construction Sector’ to attract and retain skilled workers.

Limitations in Land Acquisition

Secondly, acquiring land for developing Northern Metropolis is a tough row to hoe. Unlike artificial islands or near-shore reclamation areas in which all available land resources are government-owned, the Northern Metropolis development is much more complex as its land consists of mountains, rivers, wetlands and built-up areas. Land within the region has also been assigned for different uses under various outline zoning plans or may be restricted to specific uses under the leases governing the sites. However, these land use may be inconsistent with their preferred uses under the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy.

In addition, it is certainly a long struggle to turn the ancestral land into the development area within the region. Traditional clans have been living there for centuries. There are also many ancestral halls that are used for religious purposes, ancient buildings with historical and cultural value and geographical features with geomantic values. Although the government can resume the land by compensations under the Lands Resumption Ordinance, some key issues such as relocation of residents, conversation of ancient buildings and the amount of compensation should be carefully addressed before doing so.

To resolve the land shortage issue, planning should also focus on the development nodes and corridors connecting various boundary control points in which they should be expanded and improved in terms of planning and design. Moreover, the fragmented development pattern should be improved to achieve greater efficiency in the overall land use.

Building for the Future

Nevertheless, developing the Northern Metropolis can reshape the land use planning in the northern district and have a positive effect on the development of Hong Kong and Greater Bay Area. The above-mentioned labour and land issues only highlight some of the challenges during the implementation of the Development Strategy. Yet, there are still many challenges to be identified and tackled. By taking a proactive approach to address the problems, we strongly believe the government will turn the northern part of Hong Kong into a metropolitan area for people to live in, work and travel not long after.