Covid isolation centres being built at up to nine sites across the city will bypass environmental laws under Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s “wartime environment”, with Emergency Powers sidestepping planning applications and environmental impact assessments.
According to sweeping new powers signed into law last Wednesday, the new projects, mostly on greenfield sites and environmentally sensitive areas, are exempt “from all relevant statutory requirements in respect of licensing, registration and application”.
This means no red tape for the mainland project developer China State Construction International Holdings or its local partner, the Hong Kong government’s Architectural Services Department (ASD).
At Penny’s Bay, some 34 hectares of trees and shrubs across the peninsula were razed to bare earth by a platoon of construction workers last week, some five days before the Emergency Powers were even signed.
Piles of chopped trees dotted the landscape adjacent to the existing quarantine facility, with dozens of diggers and workers preparing the site for an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 new isolation beds.
Information on the facilities is scarce and inconsistent. According to recent government information, either eight or nine isolation facilities are being built across the city.
Greenfield sites include: Penny’s Bay; Tam Yei in Yuen Long (on land lent by Sun Hung Kai Properties); Hung Shui Kiu; Lok Ma Chau Loop; and Ma Sik Road in Fanling North New Development Area (on land lent by New World Development).
The Lok Ma Chau Loop project was announced on 22 February as one of seven projects at the time (including also Penny’s Bay, Kai Tak, Tam Mei, The Boxes, Hung Shui Kiu and Tsing Yi) but did not appear in the government’s updated list of eight projects announced two days later (in total listing only Penny’s Bay, Kai Tak, Tam Mei, The Boxes, Hung Shui Kiu, Tsing Yi, Ma Sik Road and the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facilities site on Lantau).
The government would not clarify whether the Lok Ma Chau project had been dropped or was being developed outside of the latest list of eight.
Green groups, which have been battling development of the Lok Ma Loop since the turn of the century, will be distraught should that land be developed under Emergency Powers: in 2017, conservationists warned any development of the wetlands would be an ecological “disaster”, with proposals for a road through the Loop firmly rejected by civil society. Others have pointed out the land is heavily polluted and requires intense cleaning to properly develop.
But Chief Executive Carrie Lam has made development of the Loop into the “Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation & Technology Park” a major policy focus.
“The park will prioritise the development of six research and development areas, namely healthcare technologies, big data and artificial intelligence, robotics, new materials, microelectronics and financial technology, with the first batch of buildings to be completed in 2024 to allow tenants to move in,” the government said upon a visit by Lam in February last year.
The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) would not confirm the environmental status of any of the isolation facility projects and referred all questions to the Food and Health Bureau (FHB), which did not respond. ASD, the projects’ design and engineering partner, has also not responded.
The government says Emergency Powers are invoked with “a view to allowing the Government to exempt certain persons or projects from all relevant statutory requirements in respect of licensing, registration and application, etc., such that the HKSAR Government may draw on Mainland’s support and resources in a flexible and prompt manner to undertake key anti-epidemic projects at full speed when necessary, so as to increase Hong Kong’s epidemic control capacity for containing the fifth wave within a short period of time.”
Meanwhile investor activist David Webb told an RTHK programme he found it interesting how the government had managed to cut through its own red tape to get the projects underway. “Isn’t it amazing that the HK Govt couldn’t find housing for people in cage-homes and sub-divided apartments for years, but can now build tens of thousands of isolation units in a couple of months?”