Most Hongkongers want small-house policy scrapped as soon as possible
The review of the 1972 small-house policy is long overdue. Minor changes were made in 1987, following an Audit Commission report highlighting abuses. Court cases show that sham development agreements continue unabated.
In 2002, the then housing, planning and lands secretary, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, promised a Legco committee he would complete a review of the policy after another critical Audit report. Nothing happened.
The best strategy was to pass the buck to the next administration.
Development Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has now introduced the concept that the small-house policy itself - the right to a new house for male descendants of villagers - should end. She has set a date ridiculously far in the future so that Heung Yee Kuk members do not feel immediately threatened. There is no doubt she has the support of the majority in Hong Kong to end the policy as soon as possible.
Now the real negotiations can start. Of the 2,500 applications made every year, a decreasing number (down to 800) are executed, as it is harder for villagers to assemble land for a small house. The easy deals have been done. Roughly 37,000 houses have been built since 1972 on 3,300 hectares. Based on this ratio, the remaining 1,600 hectares can accommodate 17,000 village houses, but probably fewer than that because of land ownership, topography and increasing pressure to set aside land for roads, parking and amenities.
There are no reliable estimates of the number of male descendants with a right to a village house. In pressuring the government to widen the boundaries of village environs the kuk claims 240,000 houses are needed. We can take that with a pinch of salt. It must be clear to the kuk that it does not have enough votes to change the tide. As the remaining developable village land shrinks, the sooner it strikes a deal the better it is for its members.
Whatever deal is struck, the negotiation will be over the compensation mechanism for villagers who feel left out. The lucky number will be somewhere between the 240,000 descendants and the villagers who actually own developable village land. Carrie Lam is said to be willing to offer public infrastructure and permission to increase the amount of the gross floor area that can be built on remaining village land. That would increase the number of lucky ones, in return for an agreement that the small-house policy is ended.
Paul Zimmerman, chief executive, Designing Hong Kong Limited