The numbers just don't add up for small-house policy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am

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The development chief's call to end the controversial small-house policy has sparked a debate in which indigenous villagers accused Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor of stirring up a hornets' nest.

SCMP, June 15

Let us forget for the moment that the small-house policy is not to be found anywhere in the Basic Law and is not actually a right, but an interim measure adopted in 1972 ahead of what was hoped would be a more long-term policy on New Territories housing.

Let us ignore the fact that it is a blatantly sexist measure. It gives men property rights, which it refuses to women. How a government so conscious of doing the right thing in line with accepted political fashion could still support such a practice must remain a mystery.

Let us take no notice of how this supposed right, the ding uk, has become a way for emigrants long gone from Hong Kong's shores to rake in easy cash from homes that can be erected in their names in their supposed native villages and then rented out to non-villagers, often expatriates.

Let us overlook, increasingly hard though it may be, that this policy has made an unsightly, reeking, dank mess of large swathes of the New Territories. Let us disregard all this because we know that none of this will really weigh much with our government when set in the balance against the never-ending whinges of the New Territories village lobby, the Heung Yee Kuk.

It is undoubtedly true that indigenous male villagers traditionally built homes for themselves in their native villages. The kuk always hammers away at this point in talks with the government and we shall just have to accept that some concession must be made to it.

But there is one very good reason why any such concession cannot be a blanket grant to any indigenous male villager over the age of 18 of the right once in his lifetime to build a three-storey home on a maximum site of 700 sq ft within his village boundaries.

The difficulty is that this would expand Hong Kong's existing housing stock by about 50 per cent, none of it subject to formal planning requirements, and create such a development rubbish tip that we would then do best to turn the New Territories into an atom bomb testing zone and get ourselves some instant urban renewal.

I have yet to see a formal government tally of how many people qualify for the ding uk. Our development secretary sorely needs to commission a survey now. But I do have an estimate from the Heung Yee Kuk itself, dating back to 2003, and at that time the kuk cited a figure of 240,000 people.

Bear in mind that this was 10 years ago and the figure will inevitably have risen since that time as the government has (quite rightly) choked the pipeline of ding uk permits over the last 10 years.

Bear in mind also that Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has proposed very generous terms to the kuk for ending the ding uk, extending it all the way to villagers born in the year 2029. If 240,000 was the right number 10 years ago it will be much more than this 17 years from now.

But let's just take 240,000 and do the maths. A site area of 700 sq ft times three floors each time for 240,000 entitlements gives you just over 500 million sq ft of floor space which is almost half the existing housing stock of Hong Kong.

The kuk's idea, of course, is to make it possible by removing the height restrictions and allowing individual entitlements to be agglomerated. Get ready for it, hundreds upon hundreds of high-rise residential blocks scattered throughout the country parks with all the rest of us in the urban areas paying the hundreds of billions of dollars this will require in road, water, sewer and power connections.

It just cannot be done. It's a ridiculous idea, start to finish. The kuk will just have to accept that it exists within 21st century Hong Kong.

When Beijing has already run roughshod over such land entitlement notions everywhere else there is no good reason why we should maintain them here.

The ding uk is a privilege, not a right, and it is a sexist and often duplicitous prescription for slum creation. But the real difficulty is that the numbers involved simply put it out of court.