Mapopo Farm: The consequences of blind adherence to sketchy policy

31 May 2016 – It’s not easy to feel sympathy for Becky Au Hei-man (區晞旻), co-founder of Mapopo (Baby Horse) Community Farm.

In 2010, Au quit her desk job to return to her childhood home of Ma Shi Po Village, a leafy farming community located along a bend of the Ng Tung River. Although Au’s family has no rights to village land, she founded her sustainable farming business on the very plots that her father and grandfather farmed for decades under a lease arrangement. As Henderson Land subsidiary Best Galaxy ended that arrangement in 2007, Au is definitely in the wrong – in legal terms.

By now, much of Hong Kong knows about this story due to the wider issue behind it. The Mapopo land is included in the North East New Territories New Development Area (NENTNDA) of Fanling North. Au, like many of the 60%-70% of Ma Shi Po Villagers who are classified as non-indigenous, must make way. In this case, Best Galaxy wants her out as soon as possible so it can benefit from a government land-exchange plan.

Au has made media waves by rallying fellow villagers and activists to obstruct the clearance work, even threatening to use her body to block bulldozers. Melodrama is not dead in Hong Kong, it seems.

Au has big claims – mostly of the slow death of agriculture in Hong Kong and of collusion between property developers and the government at the expense of villagers. Her last stand is hard to justify on both accounts.

Imagined threats?

Development is killing agriculture? You don’t say! Agriculture makes up less than 1% of Hong Kong’s GDP and has for years. If ever there was a time to sound the alarm, it was decades ago, not today.

As for collusion, there never has been a smoking gun, nor are activists likely to find one. In fact, the government specifically changed its new town development plans to an “enhanced conventional new town approach” in 2012 to reduce the appearance of collusion.

This town planning euphemism simply means that developers face greater restrictions on exchanging and exploiting land in development areas than they did previously, not that Henderson will be hurting as a result. According to JPMorgan, the property giant will still enjoy a handsome bump of HK$1.4-HK$1.8 per share to its net asset value (NAV) from land exchange and resumption in the NENTNDA.

Few would fault a company for seeking to raise NAV. That’s just a matter of good business. Rather, this is a lesson of the consequences of questionable government policy decisions on real people, such as the family of Becky Au and other non-indigenous villagers in Ma Shi Po.

In search of winners

All policymaking is about balancing winners, such as Henderson, against losers. In this case, the losers are easy to identify.

Although the government’s plans were shelved in 2003 pending the completion of the Hong Kong 2030 territorial development strategy, reports on that strategy’s consultation process unequivocally telegraphed the need for new-town development, even when that development was supposed to be uncertain. Consequently, open season on New Territories land never ended for developers.

In fact, land records show that Best Galaxy’s purchase of the Mapopo site dates between 2004 and 2007, just after the end of the Hong Kong 2030 public consultation and just prior to the release of the report, which gave the new development a green light. The 2007 termination of the Aus’ lease arrangement is all too coincidental.

In contrast, finding non-developer winners is challenging.

According to government news releases, the general population will benefit, mostly due to the completion of 60,700 housing units, 60 percent of which will feature subsidised rents. We’re told these units are needed to address a housing shortage.

Smart minds have already poked holes in this argument. For instance, Roger Nissim, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Real Estate and Construction of the University of Hong Kong and author of Land Administration and Practice in Hong Kong, claims that Hong Kong has an affordability problem, not a supply problem. He has projected that the government’s housing strategies may result in a surplus of units for 800,000 people.

As for that affordability problem, Nissim’s HKU colleagues suggest that, external factors, such as China’s slowdown, may play a greater role in bringing about a correction in prices than flat construction.

Similar concerns have been raised by the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, which, in mid-2013, stated, “The need for such a massive number of new public and private housing units, which in terms of size will largely echo the very high number of ‘shoebox’ units in the existing housing sectors, is not spelled out.” The HKIP also noted the vagueness of official claims that the NENTNDA would yield “robust economic and employment clusters”.

In fact, without further information, it is hard for observers to confidently claim a need for new town developments on this scale. Hong Kong might equally meet its needs through a combination of other measures: limiting new town construction to public housing, reducing mainland immigration, better encouraging subsidised housing occupants who have the ability to pay for private accommodation to move, among others.

That same old song

None of these arguments are new. Only Au’s passionate swan song holds that distinction. And soon, it too will be a memory. Nevertheless, the case of the Mapopo Community Farm serves as a lesson to policymakers to check their data and question their assumptions.

Au may bear the blame for this latest bit of protest drama, but had it not been for the NENTNDA, Best Galaxy would not have had as strong an incentive to buy the land and reject the tenant. Likewise, if the NENTNDA plans had been formulated with greater care, Au might be seen as just a footnote in a new era of progress for the New Territories – a soapbox preacher without a soapbox to stand on.

Instead, her pleas simply call more attention to flaws in official development strategies. And that’s the last thing this reputation-challenged government needs at the moment.

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