Land Law Blues

The latest decision to revoke land concessions in Nam Van adds to the dozens of idle plots the government has vowed to take back in recent years - but only a few have been officially included in the city’s land reserve with plans for future usage due to the lengthy judicial procedures and government inaction

Amid mounting public pressure over the slow progress in regaining idle land plots the government has finally invalidated 16 land grants concerning the Nam Van area nearly two years after the lapse of their temporary concessions.  

The latest development, however, does not translate into the immediate usage of land parcels by the government, given the lengthy judicial procedures in regard to other idle land lots in similar scenarios the authorities have taken back in recent years. In a bid to resolve the land shortage here, political observers urge officials to quicken the relevant process and start coming up with development blueprints for those plots in the meanwhile. 

In a series of dispatches published in the Official Gazette on 16 May, the authorities voided the temporary concessions of 16 land plots occupying a total of 62,255 square metres in Nam Van, as all the concessionaires had failed to complete development on their parcels before 30 July 2016, the deadline of their 25-year tenures.   

The land plots in Nam Van were held by transport-to-entertainment conglomerate Shun Tak Holdings Ltd., Hong Kong-listed Kerry Properties Ltd., plus affiliates headed by local heavyweights like lawyer Jorge Neto Valente and businessman William Kuan Vai Lam, all linked to Nam Van Development Company Ltd., the original grantee of the land plots surrounding the eponymous lakes. With this prominent portfolio behind the parcels, society has been sceptical about why the Administration took such a long time – almost two years – to void the land concessions.  

Talking about the non-transparency of the process, political commentator Larry So Man Yum remarked: “We understand that the government has to take back the land plots in accordance with the law . . . but we don’t understand why the process is so slow, which surely leads the public to think of collusion between the government and businessmen.” 

According to details in the dispatches, Secretary for Transport and Public Works Raimundo Arrais do Rosário proposed taking back the 16 Nam Van land plots in November 2016 but Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai On only approved the move last month. 

“The government has bemoaned the land shortage over the years so it should tackle land issues more promptly rather than slow down the process, harming the public interest,” said legislator Ella Lei Cheng I. 


The number of land concessions the government has rescinded in recent years 

Mr. So said the government’s decisions to rescind the land parcels, despite the long time it took, only fuelled the doubts of the public. “The government should now start engaging with the community about the future usage of the plots . . . when many hope for more land plots for public housing,” he noted. 

“Unfair, unjust” 

But there is no easy journey ahead as the Nam Van land concessionaires vow to overturn the official decisions. Right after the dispatches were gazetted in May some owners of the Nam Van parcels held a press conference on the same day proclaiming their rights to the land. 

William Kuan Vai Lam, whose firm owned a 9,650 square metre parcel in Nam Van Zone C for a hotel, stressed concessionaries were not liable for the non-development of the land plots in Nam Van: “We, the land concessionaries, tried to be rational since the implementation of the new land law . . . but the [current] unfair, unjust situation makes the concessionaires lose everything.” 

Local developers have been pressing the government to change the land law since 2015, when the land in which high-end residential project Pearl Horizon was being built in Areia Preta was reclaimed. This was the first prominent land concession to be voided by the authorities due to the expiry of the temporary concession since the implementation of the new land law in March 2014.  

“532,255 sq.m.”

Total land area of concessions the government has voided 

According to the latest land law that replaces a 1980 version, the status of any land concession can only be converted from temporary to permanent once the development on the site is completed, and any temporary concession – which cannot be renewed or extended – must be invalidated by the authorities upon expiry. The authorities have no discretionary powers to extend the concession, even though the concessionaries are not to be blamed for the non-development, the 2014 land law mandates. 

“If we pursue judicial procedures it is pretty meaningless as [other cases] show the court will not overrule the government’s decision despite the fact that concessionaries are not to be blamed, due to the land law,” said Mr. Kuan. Nevertheless, they will still take the cases to court, he added. 

‘Dead end’ 

In the wake of the new land law, the government has rescinded 57 land concessions concerning parcels totalling 470,000 square metres as at earlier this year, primarily due to the expiry of land concessions or usage period. The latest batch of land concessions in Nam Van brings the total number to 73, occupying a total land area of over 532,255 square metres. 

One of them was a 968 square metre land parcel on the Macau Peninsula owned by Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, SA (STDM), a gaming-cum-entertainment conglomerate founded by local gaming tycoon Stanley Ho Hung Sun. The authorities revoked the concession in 2015 after it expired in 2013 for non-development of the site. 

The conglomerate had since tried to appeal the government’s decision by taking the case to court. But the Court of Final Appeal ruled in November 2017 that although STDM was not wholly to be blamed for the non-development of the site it nevertheless upheld the government’s decision to reclaim the land plot on the grounds that the expiry of the 25-year concession period mandated by the land law prevailed over all other factors. 

Businessman Patrick Wong Tsu An, Executive Director of Nam Van Development Company Ltd., thinks it is “a dead end” for them to overrule the official decision via judicial procedures. His companies own two parcels in Nam Van Zone C totalling over 3,600 square metres for residential-cum-commercial development. 

He claimed the development on the parcels had started before coming to a halt in accordance with the government’s instructions, as the city’s Historic Centre was listed as World Heritage. “The government is definitely to be blamed [for non-development],” said Mr. Wong. “I hope the government has the courage to shoulder its responsibilities to address the issue.” 

Harming the public interest 

But seemingly the government has so far no intention of heeding developers’ calls given the strong support of the public, who hope the authorities can quicken the process and soon make plans for the future usage of these land plots. 

“If we pursue judicial procedures it is pretty meaningless as [other cases] show the court will not overrule the government’s decision, despite the fact that concessionaries are not to be blamed, due to the land law,” said developer William Kuan Vai Lam.  

According to information revealed by the Land, Public Works and Transport Bureau earlier this year, of the 57 land concessions the government has rescinded as of this April before the new batch of 16 concessions in Nam Van were recinded, the authorities had so far only taken back six land parcels, including the STDM land and the parcel opposite Macau Airport earmarked for a high-end residential project. Land parcels in other cases have not been officially taken back because of judicial procedures and other reasons. 

Chief Executive Chui Sai On remarked in a Legislative Assembly session in April that all the land plots would be listed as the city’s land reserve once they were officially reclaimed and would be prioritised for public housing and facilities. 

Legislator Ella Lei Cheng I lamented that there are many problems in the management of the city’s land resources, lambasting the inaction of the authorities.  

“Past cases show that there is still a long time before the land can be finally utilised [by the government] after their concessions have been declared invalid,” she noted. “The government should quicken the process of invalidating the concessions so that the land won’t sit idle for more time.” 

Besides the idle land plots upon the lapse of the 25-year temporary concessions she points out that there are also a number of idle plots that have failed to meet the deadline of the development period, such as a large parcel near Altira Macau Hotel in Taipa, originally zoned for a marine theme park.  

“But the government disregards the situation despite constant questioning from the public,” she added. 

Albeit a lengthy process, the legislator urges the government to start the planning process for some land plots, which are almost at the end of judicial procedures. “The government has always bemoaned the land shortage over the years so it should tackle land issues more promptly rather than slow down the process [thus] harming the public interest,” she concluded.  

The voided six 

The government currently has plans for public housing and government facilities on the six land parcels it has officially taken back in recent years. 

  • Lot O1 in Pac On 

The 4,392 square metre plot was granted to Chong Loi Lighter Factory (Macau) Ltd. for a four-storey plant for manufacturing lighters in 1995. In light of voiding the concession in 2015, the government plans to build a multi-function government building on the site. With the works starting in December 2016, the new government building was supposed to be completed last month. 

  • Lot D in Pac On 

The 7,000 square metre land parcel was originally zoned for a plant manufacturing tiles and decorative tiles but the authorities revoked the land grant in 2015 due to the expiry of the land concession. The officials currently have no plans for the land.  

  • Lot 6K in Nape 

The parcel was involved in the first round of corruption trials of disgraced official Ao Man Long in 2008 as the concessionaire tried to bribe the former Secretary for enhancing the height and plot ratio for its hotel project. Once the government resumes the rights to the land it plans to develop a government office complex on the site. Last year, the Administration awarded a design company headed by Executive Council member Eddie Wong Yue Kai the drafting of a design plan for the project. 

  • Lot in Travessa do Crisântemo da Ilha Verde 

A 385 square metre parcel was originally granted to a businessman for developing a three-storey car repair and parking complex. Given the non-development over the years the government rescinded the concession in 2015 and officially took back the parcel two years later. A fire station and ambulance depot is planned for emergency services in the area.  

  • Lot in Avenida de Wai Long 

A total land area of over 82,700 square metres was granted to a company linked to Hong Kong businessmen Joseph Lau Luen Hung and Steven Lo Kit Sing for the development of high-end residential project La Scala in two grants in 2006 and 2011. But the two businessmen were found to be involved in the third round of the corruption trial of disgraced official Ao in 2012. The Administration invalidated the two grants in 2012 and 2016 in light of the court verdict. The government originally planned an 8,000-unit public housing project for the site, reduced to 6,500 homes last year. It might take considerable time before the start of construction as the project is still at the environmental impact assessment stage.  

  • Lot at Estrada de Santa Sancha and Calçada das Chácaras 

The 969 square metre parcel was granted to gaming-to-transport conglomerate Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, SA (STDM) in 1988 for the development of a villa. Given the developer failed to develop the site before the expiry of the concession in 2013 the government voided the land grant in 2015 and the Court of Final Appeal sustained the government’s decision last year despite several appeals lodged by STDM. The government has no plans for the site at the moment. 

Sources: Land, Public Works and Transport Bureau, and media reports