Saturday, September 20, 2014

Rapid loss of agricultural land to housing raises alarm in Penang

Scarcity of land has always been an issue to Penangites, but the rapid conversion of agricultural land for housing of late has added to the concerns.
Many people are alarmed that the rich agricultural belt of Seberang Perai Selatan is being defaced in the name of housing development.
In recent months, the local media seems to have awakened from its long slumber to alert Penangites to the rapidly disappearing farmlands, no doubt caused by developers.
Indeed if the current trends continue, by 2020, Sebarang Perai Selatan alone will have lost essentially all its prime farmland to development.
Such wasteful patterns of land use are attributed to bureaucratic inefficiency, but in reality they reflect the intense pressures applied on local councils by developers and the state government.
These parties are out to obtain what they regard as prime sites for their development projects, regardless of how unsuitable these sites might be in the context of a sensible policy for preserving as much agricultural land as possible for feeding people.
In the last three years, land has been alienated for housing development at a phenomenal rate, aided partly by the fact that land is more valuable for housing than for agriculture.
On Aug 23, 2011, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that Penang Development Corporation (PDC )has allocated a 200-acre site in Batu Kawan for a mega housing project.
It entails the building of at least 7,300 affordable housing units over a period of five to seven years at a density of 55 units per acre.
On Oct 10, 2012, Silver Setup Sdn Bhd entered into a joint development agreement with Batu Kawan Development for the proposed development of a piece of land in Batu Kawan, Mukim 13.
The project is expected to comprise mixed commercial and residential development with a gross development value estimated at RM3.8 billion.
On Oct 12, 2013, PDC signed a purchase and development agreement for the construction of a retail outlet on a 16ha plot in Bandar Cassia, Batu Kawan.
On Jan 10, 2014, Lim announced IKEA's entry into Batu Kawan with the sale of 245 acres of land for the purpose of development of an integrated shopping mall.
In 2013, Mah Sing Group bought about 76.38 acres of freehold land in Jawi for RM42.59 million. Tambun Indah was reported to have bought a total of 45.1 acres at Pearl City of Bandar Tasik Mutiara. IJM Land also bought 70 acres of land in Jawi. Ecoworld also bought about 60 acres of land at Simpang Ampat.
More land is lost in such areas due to farmers “reclassifying” their holdings in order to get them approved as development sites.
If successful, such a move can earn a farmer more in a single transaction than he could ever hope to earn in a lifetime of farming.
This craze in land acquisition is raising fears of speculative residential projects that will add to Penang's 82,620 units of overhang properties.
The Housing and Population Census showed that in 2010 there were 385,658 households and 468,278 housing units in Penang. Obviously there were 21.4% more housing units than there were households.
It is noted that Penang is heading towards an oversupply of residential properties, especially high-end properties which are beyond the affordability level of the middle-income group.
More importantly, by pursuing grossly irresponsible housing policies like there is no tomorrow, the state government is inflating dangerous property bubbles. 
Quite apart from paving over agricultural land, the wanton housing development also leads to a loss of constant streams of revenues from agricultural commodities and jobs.
How long that shrinkage of Penang’s agricultural base can continue before its food producing capacity is reduced to zero is hard to tell, but it cannot be for many decades more.
Commonsense dictates that given Penang’s size, population density, commitment to sustain a reasonable agricultural base, and other considerations to maximise return of scarce land resource, any approval to cut up prime agricultural land should be deliberated on with the utmost care.
Unfortunately, the state government has failed to provide and maintain policy, legal and organisational frameworks that promote responsible governance of tenure of land, particularly agricultural lands.
Responsible governance of tenure promotes sustainable social and economic development that can help eradicate poverty and food insecurity, and encourage responsible investment.
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