Hill degradation: Statement for meeting with Penang chief minister

Statement for this afternoon’s meeting with the chief minister of Penang issued by the steering committee of Penang Forum:

We wish to thank YAB Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang, for holding this open dialogue with the Penang Forum and the speakers at the public forum on Save Our Hills held on 12 December 2015.

We regard this as a very positive step towards engaging constructively with the public on an issue of concern to many Penang people.

Background of the public forum

Why did the Penang Forum organise this event? Many members of the public are extremely worried about the increasing degradation of the hills in Penang, something that is blatantly visible to the naked eye. Yet there is little information on what is going on.

The aims and objectives of the public forum were to present a short history of development in the hills of Penang and demonstrate what is currently happening; to have the state and local authorities engage with the public and explain what is happening and to discuss ways of addressing this problem before it gets worse.

The Penang Island City Council in 2015 updated its mission statement objectives to include strengthening good governance by engaging in more consultations and meetings with members of the public. To this end, Penang Forum took the initiative to organise a forum on hill development with the council.

It held a series of planning meetings with the council in September 2015. In the proposed programme, relevant Penang state authorities such as Jabatan Perancangan Bandar dan Desa, relevant district officers as well as the planning, engineering and legal departments of the council, were invited to speak at the forum.

Regrettably, we were informed in late October that the state authorities did not wish to participate and the joint forum was cancelled. No reason was given for this cancellation. Hence, the Penang Forum decided to proceed with the organisation of the forum on its own. The authorities thus missed the opportunity to engage with the public and clarify the situation.

The Penang Forum wishes to emphasise that we are not prompted or influenced by any other body or organisation. Nor has it fallen into a “misinformation trap”. Members of the Penang Forum steering committee are professional, independent and non-partisan.

Information and data sources

We also wish to stress that all information presented at the forum came from two sources.

First, the data on the number of legal projects (56) and illegal land clearing cases (68) on sensitive hill land (as defined in the 2020 Penang Structure Plan as hill land above 76m (250 feet or more than 25 degree gradient) came from the answers provided by the state exco at the November 2015 sitting of the Penang State Assembly to questions put by Aduns.

Second, the photographs shown at the forum were supplied by resident associations, members of the public at large, satellite imagery from Google Earth and aerial shots taken from drones.

Who approved the 56 building projects on sensitive hill land?

The Penang Forum was unable to get precise information on whether approval for these building projects was given by the council under the previous state government or the present one. The Penang Forum merely stated, based on the approved list issued to Aduns that the council approved these projects between 2008 and 2015.

The chief minister has repeatedly said that the state has not approved such projects under his administration (it is the council, not the state, that approves planning and building plans).

YB Chow Kon Yeow, however, in an interview (The Star, 19 December 2015) stated that one of the reasons for the approval of the 56 projects could be that they were approved by the council before the 76m limit came into force under the Penang Structure Plan in 2007. This implies that some projects could have been approved under the present administration. Only the council can dispel this uncertainty by providing the necessary information to the public.

Furthermore, even if these projects were approved by the previous Barisan Nasional administration in 2007, such approval could not have been extended beyond 2012. This is because the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 stipulates that approvals are valid for only one year but may be extended, and the Penang Structure Plan states that approvals may be extended for a maximum of five times only.

Therefore the present administration can be considered responsible for any project approved after 2012. In addition, when granting any extension, new conditions may be imposed or conditions originally imposed may be varied.

Case study of illegal clearing – ‘Botak Hill’

The illegal clearing of hill land in Bukit Relau is of particular concern. It is visible to anyone crossing the first bridge into Penang Island. What started as small but significant scarring of the hills in early 2013 has become an unmitigated disaster area.

Those responsible for this illegal clearing were charged and found guilty; they were fined RM50,000 upon appeal and ordered to stop work and to commence mitigation work.

Instead, what is now clearly visible are major earthworks that include extensive road infrastructure. Is such elaborate road infrastructure necessary for mitigation work?

The Penang Forum has repeatedly pointed out that prosecuting under the Street Drainage and Building Act of 1974 and seeking monetary penalties (rather than jail sentences) from the landowners or their agents is ineffective. On the contrary, it sends the wrong message that clearing land illegally is not a serious offence as the fines are limited to RM50,000 and can easily be written off as cost of doing business.

Unfortunately, this is validated in the data that show a spike in illegal hill land clearing after 2013, with 35 such cases in the first 10 months of 2015.

The Penang Forum recommends that such cases should be prosecuted under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1976, which imposes heavier penalties whereby not only can the body corporate be fined up to RM500,000 but also their officers are deemed to be guilty unless proven otherwise.

This would signal that the state and council are seriously committed to stopping further illegal clearing of hill land, be it for agricultural or building purposes.

Safety guidelines for hill development

Firstly, while it is technically possible to build safely on hill slopes as is done in Hong Kong and many other places, many conditions must be present before this can happen. We need to ensure that the right development policies, tools, expertise, monitoring and enforcement capabilities and all other necessary building blocks are on par with places such as Hong Kong, which has more than 200 engineers in its geotechnical department. There each slope is tagged and assigned to engineers who are responsible for its safety. Moreover, the environmental costs of hill land development must be considered as this is not simply an engineering issue. Development on sensitive hill land is technically possible subject to all the right conditions in place.

Secondly, we recommend that the present approach to environmental and engineering impact assessment for individual projects in isolation be reviewed very carefully. Presently, for hill development, engineers only consider the impact of their own projects and not the whole cumulative impact of other surrounding projects. While each individual project may pass the requirements of a geophysical test on its own, when taken cumulatively, the geophysical impact may be vastly different. A holistic approach must be adopted in analysing the wellbeing of the hills as a whole.

Lastly, the current requirements and or rules for safety measures for the entire construction process are recommended to be reviewed and to include safety measures for the entire site as well as the impact introduced to the surrounding area at every stage of the construction process. The risks of mudslides and landslips during
construction work are very real.

Recommendations

  1. We call on the Penang state government to comply with their own stated policy of prohibiting development on hill land above 76m (250 feet) and/or with a gradient greater than 25° and to exclude ordinary residential or commercial buildings as special projects. Special projects should be restricted only to those of public interest.
  2. We recommend that, besides undertaking an independent environmental and geotechnical impact assessment in accordance to strict environmental standards for every hill development project, a holistic and cumulative impact assessment for the whole hill must be conducted.
  3. We call upon the city council to vigorously prosecute the violators to the full extent of the law, including pressing for the imposition of jail sentences, and to blacklist all offenders from future development projects.
  4. We call upon the authorities to require all offenders to restore the damaged hills to their original natural condition (not only to carry out mitigation work), failing which the authorities should undertake the restoration work and the cost charged to the offenders. In addition they should be prosecuted for failure to comply.

Penang Forum steering committee
11 January 2016

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