According to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), there are consistently close to 40,000 applicants queuing up for the public niches each year, but all the 170,000 public niches have been allotted to those who have been on the waiting list for years. It takes at least 38 months to get a place. This chronic shortage results in the mushrooming of private columbaria.
Ng says operators choose to develop in these remote agricultural areas because they can escape paying the required premium when they alter the original land use. He says the landowners in Shui Mong Tin told the authorities the changes made in the area were part of a “greening” project. He adds that because it is private land they do not have to consult the villagers and can avoid being examined by and seeking approval from the Town Planning Board.
In other words, they can maximize profits and minimize costs.
Tse says the government has the power to ask the owners to return the land to its original use and, if it does so, the ashes of the dead might have to be moved from their resting places. “The buyers will bear the risk of losing the urns they paid for if the government does not permit the alteration of land use,” he says
Apart from the possible implications for the buyers of the urns, Young Ng is concerned about the damage the development of the private columbarium in Shui Mong Tin has on the geological features of the area. “It’s easy to damage, but it’s impossible to recover.”
Ng says the rocks at the shell beach are 280 million years old while the trees that have been cut down to make way for the rows of urns were hundreds years old.
But Tse says it seems the landowners do not care about the ecological value of the land in Shui Mong Tin. They do not consider factors like planning for land use, transportation, pollution and geoconservation. “It’s truly ‘real estate hegemony’ for the homes of the dead.”
What is more worrying is that if the operation of the columbarium in Shui Mong Tin proves to be a successful case, other landowners may follow suit.
The Association for Geo-conservation has reported the case to both the Lands Department and the Planning Department but no action has been taken to stop the construction work so far.
When Varsity asked the government about the status of the columbarium, the Development Bureau spokesman said columbarium use was not permitted in the lease of the area but that the owners had made an application for change of land use. This application has not yet been approved, nor is it known if it will be. It is currently on what is known as List B.
This is part of a scheme the government is using to try to control the proliferation of the private columbaria by introducing a listing system to divide officially approved locations from those without approval.
To qualify for List A, a columbarium must comply with the land lease and statutory land and town planning requirements. Facilities that cannot live up to the regulations are put under List B.
But what we found is that some columbaria ignore or bypass the listing system and keep developing their own businesses.