A planned three-hour official session yesterday morning at Komtar to solicit feedback on the draft Penang Structure Plan 2030 from civil society was cut short to half that duration after relentless questioning by activists.
About the only thing that turned out well was the fried bee hoon served for breakfast before the session began at just after 9am.
The session was chaired by the director of the planning department with the external consultant also present.
After an introduction into the process of publicising the plan and soliciting feedback for the draft Structure Plan, which serves as the legally enforceable planning document for the state, and a short film, the session was open to the floor at about 9.30am.
Among the key issues raised by the activists:
The prohibition on hill-site development remained – with what looked like a crucial difference. Previously, development was prohibited on sites located more than 76m about sea level and/or on slopes greater than 25 degrees in gradient. But now, in the latest draft structure plan, the words “and or” (“dan atau”) had been changed to just “and” (“dan”).
The NGO reps felt that this narrowed the prohibition to only sites which fulfilled both these two criteria ie higher than 76m about sea level and steeper than 25 degrees gradient. What if the site was higher than 76m above sea level but less than 25 degrees in gradient? Would development on such sites be allowed? The government planners felt this was just a matter of semantics and differing interpretation. But the activists were suspicious and wary: they felt this was important as the courts would look into the precise wording in the structure plan if there was a dispute.
The loophole for so-called “special projects” remained in the plan. This presumably still allows all kinds of crazy ‘public infrastructure’ on sites higher than 76 metres above sea level.
Another major point was that the structure plan projected that the Penang population would rise to 2.450m by 2030, up from 1.645m in 2014. That’s a 50% increase!
This looks inflated for several reasons:
- The state is trying to move away from a labour-intensive economy to “Industry 4.0” and a knowledge economy.
- Net inward migration averaged less than 10,000 per year over the last 20 years.
- The total fertility rate has dropped well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple.
- The Department of Statistics, the experts on population projections, have forecast that Penang will have a population of only 1.983m in 2030, just a 12% increase from the present 1.767m estimate for 2018.
So the Penang Structure Plan’s forecasted population for 2030 has exceeded by 24% the Department of Statistics projection for 2030 ie by almost half a million people!
Now, this is crucial. Why would the Penang Structure Plan do that?
Well, for one thing, how else to justify the massive land reclamation projected in the draft structure plan? They are planning a whopping 7,854 acres (3,178ha) of land reclamation by 2030. That includes the 4,500 acres from the three islands down south and more reclamation on the mainland.
[In contrast, highly populated and dense Hong Kong is planning just one 1,700ha artificial island, half of what is proposed in Penang. Even so, the Hong Kong population is expected to peak at 8.2m in 2043 before declining to 7.7m by 2066. Already there are serious concerns in Hong Kong about the proposed island being vulnerable to climate change. While the artificial island off Hong Kong could be built to handle massive storms, the size of the waves would be unpredictable. Just ask the hotel in George Town, which already has had waves spill over and flood its premises a couple of times.]
The proposed reclamation in pale yellow
In any case, why would we need so much land reclamation in Penang when the population is only increasing ever so slightly? [By the way, Penang state has a bigger land mass than Singapore but it has only one third of the Singapore population.]
A nature activist expressed concern that the land reclamation on the mainland covers the only public beach in Butterworth as well as an environmentally sensitive coastal stretch.
Another activist asked why they are showing the three proposed artificial islands off the southern coast of Penang Island in the structure plan when approvals have not yet been given. What about how those islands are going to damage fishing grounds and food security for the state? And why are they creating artificial islands instead of just extending the coastline? (Presumably because the developers want to maximise sea-view condos, never mind the siltation problem those islands create.)
Why not rectify the imbalance with the mainland instead of focusing most of the ‘development’ in Penang?
Why is the structure plan talking about just climate mitigation when it should be based on a platform of building climate resilience to meet the serious challenges ahead?
What would happen if there is a drought? About three quarters of Penang water supply goes to servicing the needs of agriculture, most of it rice cultivation, in the state. Shouldn’t we be looking at maximising rice yield per unit of water used?
Vegetable farming on hill land too needs a policy statement following the loss of vegetable farm land in the lowlands (at Thean Teik and Relau for example).
Someone raised the question as to why the Structure Plan did not clearly specify the permissible densities for property development in the state. The previous Structure Plan ending 2020 had specified densities of 15 homes per acre for secondary corridors, 30 homes per acre for primary corridors and 87 homes per acre for areas under transit-oriented development (eg near rail corridors). Unfortunately, many times, the maximum densities of 87 homes per acres or even more were allowed even though there was no such transit-oriented development in the area. Activists lamented the disappearance of traditional villages and kampungs in Penang to make way for higher-end highrise property development. What can be done to protect the remaining established villages?
At yesterday’s session, most of the time, the planners and the consultant simply could not answer the questions raised, bertubi-tubi (relentlessly). Instead, the standard response was, make sure you “isikan borang maklumbalas yang disediakan” (fill up the feedback forms). As one of the participants observed, it was more of a Q & (no) A session.
After about one hour and 15 minutes of questioning, the organisers obviously had enough. It was only 10.40am but they decided to cut short the session that was supposed to end at noon.
I had no chance to ask where they are going to find the 300,000 inhabitants for the three new islands they are planning, especially when most of the homes will be high-end housing. And why is the structure plan allowing so much high-end housing when there is a serious property overhang now? Why are they planning to build so many more homes, and reclaiming so much land when the population is only growing marginally?
A few days ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that governments must do all they can to reduce carbon emissions by 2030 if we are to have any hope of limiting the rise in global warming to 1.5C. One way is to push for more and better public transport. But over here, they want to insert in the structure plan the monster Pan Island Link highway, which has not yet been approved, and all other proposed highways under the SRS proposal, which will worsen emissions.
Cleaner, greener Penang?