Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), having watched the documentary Beyond Beauty — Taiwan From Above (看見台灣), immediately ordered a task force to be established to look into the theft of gravel, the overuse of land in mountain areas and the sustainability of state land. The inter-departmental task force was to investigate how to address the destruction of national land and pollution issues revealed in the documentary.
The problem was, this Cabinet of ours was looking at the erosion of our national land only through what the film was telling them. The film, however, concentrated on the farmers who are using too much groundwater and too much land on hillside slopes, while talking little about the more serious issue of who has been polluting our rivers and seas. Neither did the film expose the full scale of the problem of fencing off land for speculative purposes.
Putting aside the chaos surrounding the development of industrial parks or the general incompetence of those working to curtail pollution, there is also the problem of escalating property prices: Central bank Governor Perng Fai-nan (彭淮南) has said that real estate in Taiwan has become more expensive than it is in Tokyo, and Cathay Financial chairman Tsai Hong-tu (蔡宏圖) has also commented that land speculation in certain areas has gotten out of hand. Clearly, the Cabinet’s priority should absolutely be how to put a stop to unbridled urban development and land speculation carried out in the name of economic development.
In actual fact, Jiang should not have needed to wait to see the documentary, and legislators should not have needed to spend public money flying over Taiwan’s landscape in helicopters to be seen to be doing their jobs. The facts and figures are there for all to see in the existing official statistics and analysis, making it perfectly clear where the root causes of our island’s sickness reside: The government’s indulgence in planning for urban development.
First, updates issued by the Control Yuan on June 6 to the Ministry of the Interior and the various local governments around the country, and the new national zoning plan announced on Oct. 17 by the Construction and Planning Agency, both indicated that up until the end of 2011, the total population living within urban planning zones throughout the country stood at about 18.73 million — the rest of Taiwan’s population, approximately 4.37 million people, living in rural locations or in the mountains — but the plans allow for a population figure as high as 25.12 million people, that is, 6.39 million higher than the previous figure.
Furthermore, the zoning plan also revealed that the urban planning zones included about 99,000 hectares of agricultural land that was generally regarded as being land set aside for urban areas to house 14.27 million people after it is rezoned as residential. Combining the two figures, the present national urban planning zones allow for a total capacity of just under 40 million people.
However, according to the Council for Economic Planning and Development’s population forecast report for the period last year through 2060, Taiwan’s population growth rate has already started to decline and, according to medium variant projections, the total national population is expected to start to fall following its peak in 2024 of 23.66 million. Clearly, there is no way the population is ever going to reach the level set out in the urban planning forecasts discussed above.
Not only do the local urban planning proposals of local governments fail to reflect this, they are actually proposing more expansion, to take advantage of the current wave of price increases. And yet the Cabinet continues to indulge these plans, and the interior ministry continues to play along in its urban planning reviews and land expropriation reviews, as if it has not taken a blind bit of notice of the updates issued by the Control Yuan.
Finally, according to the Construction and Planning Agency figures, there are currently 1.56 million empty apartments in Taiwan, including 329,000 in New Taipei City (新北市), 199,000 in Greater Taichung, 179,000 in Greater Kaohsiung, 154,000 in Taoyuan, 126,000 in Greater Tainan and 123,000 in Taipei City. In the six major metropolitan areas combined, there are a total of 1.11 million empty apartments.
The public have a right to be angry purely for the fact that housing prices continue to go through the roof regardless of the high vacancy rates. Farmers are taking their own lives because of the land expropriation going on, while financial groups and business tycoons are claiming that NT$1 million (US$33,700) per square meter is not too high an asking price.
It is hard to know whether the entire Cabinet is indifferent to others’ suffering or if it really is at a loss as what to do, but it continues to tolerate the enclosure of land and property speculation by financial groups and local governments.
Chan Shun-kuei is a lawyer and chairman of the Taiwan Bar Association’s environmental law committee.
Translated by Paul Cooper