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On the Horizon
Expediting the Town Planning Process
Public housing in Hong kong

Hong Kong’s town planning system is intended to optimize land use when planning new towns, building types, and infrastructure and urban development. 

Our approach to town planning is, to a large degree, grounded on the principle of sustainable development, which seeks to provide an organized, efficient and desirable place for the community to live and work in. As such, the efficiency and effectiveness of our town planning system is heavily dependent on the ability of the relevant government bureaus, departments and statutory bodies to work together seamlessly. 

The planning system as it currently stands, however, has room for improvement. In a recent letter to the Director of Planning, the Chamber called for concrete measures to expedite and simplify the town planning process to facilitate the development of a more liveable and competitive Hong Kong.

Streamline the decision-making process
Under the existing policy framework, development and construction activities are overseen by three government departments: the Planning Department (PlanD), Lands Department (LandsD) and Buildings Department (BD). In addition, there is the Town Planning Board (TPB) – a statutory body tasked with ensuring the “health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the community through the process of guiding and controlling the development and use of land.” 

It is perhaps not surprising that issues arise, given the need to channel applications through all of these bodies. To further complicate matters, the three departments operate on different standards and criteria. Combining these departments would therefore appear to be the logical way forward. 

As this would take time, we have suggested that, as an interim measure, officers be trained in the processes across all three departments. This would hopefully bring about a more streamlined and smoother application process. 

In the event that the Government decides an amalgamation to be unworkable, there is an alternative of establishing a high-level committee, chaired by the Financial Secretary or Chief Secretary for Administration. This committee would then serve as a one-stop shop to coordinate the operations of relevant bureaus and departments. 

This concept is not novel, as there are successful precedents including the Development Opportunities Office, Energizing Kowloon East Office and the Public Works Department.  

Review the process for approvals
A centralized processing system for approving building plans has been around for some years. Its purpose is to ensure that all interested government departments are consulted and that their comments on private development proposals are collated by the Building Authority.

However, the success of the system depends, to a large extent, on close cooperation among the government departments concerned. 

As stipulated in the Buildings Ordinance, the Building Authority is required to issue a decision on building plans within a defined period, which is 60 days after receiving the first submission and another 30 days if a further submission is required. 

In reality, this process can take more than six months because not all government departments follow the prescribed vetting period. Vetting criteria, parameters and definitions can vary across departments and are sometimes inconsistent with those set by the Building Authority. 

To address these issues, we have urged the Government to provide a harmonized and consistent set of standards and requirements. Specifically, our proposals are to:   

  • align key development parameters with respect to such aspects as gross floor area, site coverage, building height and sustainable building design across the PlanD, LandsD and BD when vetting building plans; 
  • require the LandsD to provide feedback on decisions for building plans in respect of lease conditions without having applicants obtain prior approval from the BD; 
  • simplify and combine the two-stage design, disposition and height approval process conducted by the Building Plan Unit (BPU) and District Lands Office of the LandsD; 
  • increase manpower at the BPU and BD to help expedite the process of approving building plans; and
  • maintain regular dialogue between stakeholders and key government departments (such as the PlanD, LandsD and BD) to collectively identify technical issues and resolve problems.

Enhance efficiency of the Town Planning Board 
We also believe there should be a review of the TPB to ensure that it is able to discharge its mandate in an efficient and effective manner. In addition to playing a regulatory role, the board could also consider taking on a facilitator role in vetting town planning applications. The TPB in its current shape and form needs a rethink. 

Symptomatic of TPB’s structural deficiencies is the perceived trend of judicial review applications against its decisions. 

Recent examples include Hysan Development Co Ltd – Town Planning Board (2014) and Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong – Town Planning Board (2015). In both these cases, TPB attracted criticism from the courts on shortcomings in its procedures and practices. 

These included not giving members enough time to digest the substantial and technical written materials that are sometimes made available only on the day of meetings. Another concern is the heavy demands on members as a result of lengthy meetings with very short breaks. 

In relation to these issues, we have suggested:

  • expanding the membership of the TPB so that meetings could be held more frequently and members sitting at meetings do not have to do so for very long hours;
  • arranging for materials submitted for consideration by the TPB to be reviewed in advance by an independent planning consultant who can provide a summary on the key issues and flag up references for members; and
  • providing briefings to members when they are appointed to the TPB on their terms of reference and the procedures of the TPB, among other information relevant to their responsibilities. 

Hong Kong is faced with the challenge of maintaining its competitiveness while contending with liveability issues due to a densely-built environment. Members of Hong Kong’s real estate industry are ready and willing to work with the Government to find solutions that will improve the quality of life in the city. 

We hope that these suggestions will help the TPB to facilitate the planning process and create a liveable and competitive environment for Hong Kong.

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