Complete Property Market Updates of Singapore

June 21, 2008

Kranji’s growing needs

Filed under: Commercial,General,Property Add Value,Regulators — Propertymarketupdates @ 4:10 pm

Farmers need more help to thrive if area is to fulfil its potential as a countryside draw

Trying to get out of the Kranji countryside without a car of your own used to require a mixture of charm and luck. Since there were no bus services, and no taxi driver would take a booking from that far-flung corner of Singapore, I had to beg for rides out from other farm visitors.

Today, the farmers run a minibus service from the nearby Kranji MRT Station, and growing public interest has been mirrored by increasing development of farms that incorporate facilities such as farmstays and cafes.

To cap it off, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) unveiled plans last week for 21ha of new parkland, walking trails as well as more farming plots with space for leisure facilities there. It declared that the 1,400ha Kranji and Lim Chu Kang area – dotted with 115 farms – has potential to be ‘a unique countryside destination close to nature’.

But farmers from the Kranji Countryside Association will tell you that it has been a long, hard slog to get the authorities to recognise the gem in this north-western district – and how, despite this recent vindication, it will continue to be so.

They tried selling this concept of ‘agri-tainment’ to the authorities in 2003. This marriage of agriculture and entertainment on farmland, they said, could be used to bolster farms’ income and nurture greater interest in local produce.

In 2005, the URA eased its rules to let farms open shops and restaurants, and offer farmstays. The Singapore Land Authority followed that up the following year by putting up new farmland for tender for ‘agri-tainment’ uses.

By then, the farmers’ continual promotion – driven by the flamboyant former Netball Singapore chief Ivy Singh-Lim and fourth-generation farmer Kenny Eng – had generated enough attention for even listed firms to muscle in on the action.

HLH Agri R&D, a subsidiary of mainboard-listed PDC Corp, is now developing 20 farm villas, a restaurant and beer garden just behind Mrs Singh-Lim’s organic vegetable farm, Bollywood Veggies, off Neo Tiew Road.

But the grand plans to turn Kranji into a rustic haven belie the continual problems the farmers face.

There is still no proper bus service. SMRT service 925 – the only one that goes anywhere near – ventures only to the tip of the farming area in Neo Tiew Crescent on Sundays and public holidays.

The association’s farmers pay about $7,000 a month to run an hourly minibus service plying the inner sections of the countryside. They charge $2 a ride, which barely covers half their costs.

A bus service is a lifeline for lower-income folk who otherwise cannot afford to visit the area. But the farmers’ repeated appeals for a proper service, which they have offered to subsidise, have not borne fruit.

Until the authorities and bus companies relent, they will have to dig deep into their pockets to keep that private service going.

Indeed, up till last week, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Kranji farmers were pretty low on the nation’s priority list.

The area was unceremoniously picked for a granite stockpile last year to stabilise the supply of construction materials after Indonesia imposed a ban on land sand exports and detained barges shipping granite to Singapore.

Explaining its move, the Building and Construction Authority said the area was ‘away from built-up areas’ which, ironically, was one of the main reasons for its appeal to locals and tourists alike.

The stockpile remained, despite a 1,000-signature petition and a protest by 20 farmers. And the signs are that it will stay even in view of the longer-term plans to develop Kranji as a leisure destination.

Perhaps an even bigger issue is the short lease of farmland in Singapore. While developers downtown have the luxury of 99-year leases, farmland is leased out for 20 years at a stretch. This policy betrays the transient nature of farmland in Singapore – and bolsters the perception that land can be used for agriculture only until a more pressing or profitable use comes along.

While it is hard to justify shielding farmers from rising land costs when the rest of Singapore feels the pinch, it wouldn’t hurt to give them a greater sense of certainty now that Kranji has been earmarked as a countryside destination.

It need not be a massive gesture. Simply letting the farmers renew their leases a few years before they run out – similar to letting owners of downtown developments ‘top up’ their 99-year leases before a collective sale – can help spur hesitant farmers to develop more visitor facilities.

It would also help stave off developers with deep pockets but little interest in farming who snap up land to build commercial facilities surrounded by token planting.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of Kranji, and the farms need to thrive if the area is to fulfil its newly minted role as Singapore’s next big countryside attraction.

Lose them, and we will be left with nothing but a theme park.

Source : Sunday Times – 25 May 2008

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