But Man says the red tape scuppered his plans. “The government asked us to go to the Planning Department to apply for the change of land use and to form an organising committee, like an NGO,” says Man, who has spent nearly eight years on the project. The cost of accountants and lawyers fees put Man off and he is now trying to apply for a short-term tenancy instead. He says the government guidelines seem arbitrary while the bureaucracy is inflexible.
As a result, few schools are rented out and most vacant school campuses are left to decay.
At the Lam Tsuen No. 3 Public School in Tai Po, nature has all but reclaimed the old school building. “It has been over a year since the government last came to cut the grass,” says Wong, the owner of a corner shop next to the abandoned school. “We villagers really want the government to cut down the weeds for us since there are snakes around.”
Wong says there had been talk of demolishing the ruins of the school and building an elderly home and community centre on the site. However, the talks ended in failure as there was opposition from some indigenous villagers who claimed ownership of the land.
Not all indigenous villagers are unwilling to set aside their claims to land on which schools have been abandoned. When Varsity visited the Kwu Tung Public Oi Wah School in Sheung Shui, a representative of Kwu Tung Village, Nam Siu-fu, was busy negotiating with a potential tenant interested in taking over the two-storey, 12 classroom school premises to operate a private school.
The school is just a 10-minute bus ride from Sheung Shui train station. And unlike most vacant school premises, it is still connected to electricity and water supplies. Since it closed in 2006, the building has been used regularly as a gathering place for villagers and as a polling station for Legislative and District Council elections. A few television series have also used it as a location set.
“We villagers will support whoever comes to occupy the school premises, as long as it can be of use, even if it means a private school organisation,” says Nam.
George Pang Chun-sing, a professional civil and structural engineer and district councillor, agrees with Nam. Pang points out that many vacant school premises in North District are structurally sound and safe to be reused as schools. Pang says that while many village schools are dated and cannot be compared to the modern state-of-art school complexes built after 2000, they can still provide a quick solution to ease the demand for school places.
Pang is critical of the government’s inability to pay heed to the public’s needs. He says that even if the vacant school premises are inappropriate for education purposes, the sites can still be refitted to become elderly homes and town halls which are sorely lacking in North District.
Pang says proposals to those ends are repeatedly rejected by the Lands Department because they would require a change in land use under the Town Planning Ordinance. Yet, he points out permission was granted to turn a site opposite the vacant Kin Tak Primary School on Fan Kam Road from one earmarked for government, institution or community use, into luxurious properties.
“We are all aware of the serious shortage for primary one school places. We have schools and premises readily available; why is the government still reluctant to reopen the schools?” says Pang.
“Instead, the government changed the land use in order to sell sites to property developers. We are all very dissatisfied with this deal. You can see the government departments and Education Bureau are not really trying to help the cross-border and cross-district students.”