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Private clubs' land leases to be reviewed

HONG KONG: The government says land leases enjoyed by private clubs, which paid little or no premium for their land and are charged only a nominal rent, are outdated and need to be evaluated when they come up for renewal soon.

Giving details of such leases for the first time, Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing said 71 sites had been granted free or for a nominal premium of HK$1,000 (RM414) and more than 50 were up for renewal in the next two years.

"Some of the special conditions contained in the land leases have been laid down for a long time, and may have become outdated from the present day point of view," Tsang said.

"As most of the land leases will be due for renewal in 2011 or 2012, we will review such conditions when processing the renewal applications ... and make appropriate revisions as necessary."

At the same time, he said, managers of clubs whose leases required them to open their facilities to the public would be "encouraged" to do so more often and public rights of access to these clubs would be publicised.

Tsang was responding in the Legislative Council to a question from the Civic Party's Tanya Chan, raised after the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) reported that the city's most exclusive clubs enjoyed free or cheap land, and some which were required to allow access to young people or the public at large had seldom, if ever, done so.

Government departments supposed to inform eligible groups about their rights had also not done so.

Chan called on the Home Affairs Bureau to disclose whether the clubs had been opened to the public and asked whether the government would consider reviewing the land grant policy.

She also wanted to know if it would consider stepping up monitoring and publicity efforts to ensure proper use of resources occupied by these clubs.

She said some of the leases were too favourable to private clubs as they were required to open only a few sections to the public and they were allowed to charge schools and welfare organisations for the electricity they used.

"Some land leases even specified that the clubs don't have to provide toiletries, even if they open their toilets and facilities to the public," Chan said.

A breakdown provided by the government yesterday shows that, of the 71 plots granted under "private recreational leases", 38 had paid no land premium while 33 paid only HK$1,000.

Sixty-nine of these properties have to pay an annual rent equal to 3 per cent of the rateable value estimated by the Rating and Valuation Department.

But there are two exceptions. The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club only has to pay HK$1,000 land rent a year to the government, while The Post Office and Cable & Wireless Recreation Club needs to pay even less - HK$100 a year. Fifteen of the sites were distributed to social organisations such as the Po Leung Kuk, while a further 15 went to uniformed groups including the Red Cross and Girl Guides, and two were assigned to provide recreational facilities to civil servants such as the clubhouse of Chinese Civil Servants' Association on Wylie Path, Kowloon.

The remaining 39 are held mostly by private sports and recreation clubs - the Hong Kong Golf Club on Island Road, Hong Kong Country Club in Deep Water Bay, Hong Kong Football Club on Sports Road and the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club among the best-known.

To justify the grants, the Lands Department wrote into the leases a requirement that the lots or parts of them should be opened "for sports meetings or other similar activities of schools, youth clubs, welfare organisations", when required by the "competent authorities" in charge of education, social welfare and recreation and culture.

The Post found, however, that these competent departments had never written to the clubs asking them to open their fields to eligible groups. Few school teachers or social workers had heard about such opportunities to use the clubs' facilities and some officials even said it was news to them.

Replying to Chan yesterday, Tsang said about 50 clubs had to renew their land leases in the next two years and their managers would be encouraged to open their facilities to the public more often.

To publicise the access rights, Tsang said the bureau would upload information onto government websites to remind welfare and youth organisations of the opportunities to use these private facilities.

But he said the government would not readily take back possession of the land as long as the clubs had not violated their land leases and had adopted a non-discriminatory membership policy.

He said high membership fees would not be regarded as discriminatory as they were a result of limited supply.

Tsang also handed the monitoring responsibility to the Lands Department, which falls under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau.

"The Lands Department is responsible for the general monitoring of private recreational leases," he said. "It is assisted by other government departments in the enforcement of some specified provisions."

Under the access clause, officials have to give the clubs not less than six weeks' notice in writing, ensure the use is not at weekends or public holidays, and that it does not interfere with care and maintenance.

The clubs are allowed to keep their buildings and other areas, such as swimming pools, exclusively for members, but have to allow visitors to use toilets, changing rooms and open space.

Earlier inquiries made by the Post found little knowledge of the requirements among various government departments. A Social Welfare Department official said neither he nor his colleagues had heard about such arrangements and he could not find any written requisition record.

Neither the Leisure and Cultural Services Department nor the Education Bureau had made any such request either.

The Home Affairs Bureau said it had not invoked the land clause because it had not found the need to. -- South China Morning Post
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