PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 12:00am

THERE IS A government study that I would dearly love to see. It is the one that says a section of Tsuen Wan that Wharf (Holdings) wants to redevelop should be preserved for industrial use because there is demand for factories and warehouses on the part of traditional industries in Tsuen Wan.

I would love to see it because I like a working day in which an easy target pops up before I have started on my first cup of coffee. It allows me to sketch out the day's column at breakfast and send it in so early that the boss wonders whether I am a slacker. No, boss, it does not happen quite that frequently but it will if I get a copy of this study.

What traditional industries, may I ask? Tsuen Wan's economy was once based on farming and fishing. It then came to be based on manufacturing of light consumer goods. There are vestiges of both left just as you will find ruins of bygone glory in Rome and Athens but in all these cases we are talking of ancient history.

As the first chart shows, we have gone from more than 50 per cent of the workforce in manufacturing in 1980 to only 7.8 per cent now. The rag trade accounts for about a third of what remains and this is headed to extinction within a few years as quota protection of garments and textiles is abolished.

The next-largest component, accounting for about 20 per cent of employment, is printing and publishing. I can understand why we still have it left when one publisher I know who went to printers across the border had an entire run of expensive coffee table books (none for mainland readership) pulped because they included a picture of a Falun Gong gathering. Let us not expect mainland authorities to be stupid forever.

Then we get food manufacturing with about 11 per cent of employment, an industry that will stay as it needs to be close to consumers but not a growth industry. The rest you can forget.

And clearly I am not the only person who thinks so. As the second chart shows, completions of industrial property now account for only 4 per cent of total completions by floor space, down from 44 per cent at the end of 1988. Vacant factory space now amounts to about 20 million square feet and the only reason it is not much higher is that a good deal of the occupied space has quietly been taken up for office use.

There is an obvious solution to this wastage of valuable urban land. Tear down those industrial buildings and rezone the land for other more pressing uses as Wharf has proposed. Those buildings are essentially valueless in their present state.

And if government planners who propose that we keep them as they are want a test of it there is a ready one available. Just ask developers what they would bid for them in their present state and what they would bid for open use of the land. Let the market decide, you bureaucrats.

Graphic: jake24gbz