Take kuk at its word and village-house nightmare will disappear

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 March, 2006, 12:00am

'I do not see these measures (small house policy) as anything more than interim measures which will complement the major job of producing a comprehensive development plan for the rural New Territories.'

Dennis Bray

District Commissioner New Territories

Speech to Legislative Council, 1972

BUT THAT MAJOR JOB was never done and the interim measure has become a ravenous monster that our government now proposes to feed in a way that threatens to create a sprawling urban nightmare in the New Territories.

The Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, has caved in to that influential NT lobby, the Heung Yee Kuk, and we now face the grim prospect of a countryside slathered with hundreds of residential tower blocks subject to no comprehensive development plan at all.

It is where we are inevitably headed with his 'pilot scheme' to allow multiple titles for NT village housing and to relax height restrictions on these buildings.

But first some background.

The small house policy adopted in 1972 provides that every indigenous male NT villager over the age 18 may build a single three-storey 2,100 square foot home on a 700 square foot site in his village.

Note immediately the discriminatory nature of the policy. Women are excluded and other indigenous Hong Kong residents are also denied this privilege.

No official tally exists of the number of men who qualify but the Heung Yee Kuk estimates it at 240,000 and that number grows every year.

Now haul out your calculator - 240,000 times 2,100 and you get 504 million sq ft of possible floor area under this scheme. The total floor area of all residential buildings in Hong Kong is about 1,200 million sq ft. We are thus looking at an entitlement overhang of 42 per cent of our existing housing stock. But, of course, it cannot all be built under the existing provisions of the policy.

Leave alone the enormous environmental impact and the grave services chaos where these homes have already been built in any number, there is simply not enough village land to accommodate all potential claimants.

Thus our government has had to squeeze the application pipeline and only a small number of claimants manage every year to get through the process. The waiting queue is a very long one.

Enter the Heung Yee Kuk with its big idea. Instead of one villager to one 700 square foot lot with a 25-foot height restriction, allow any number of villagers to agglomerate their entitlements and then lift the height restriction so that they can each take a unit in a taller building.

That should solve the shortage of land problem in the villages.

But now do the maths again.

Assume a 40-storey residential block with six flats per floor. This works out to 240 units per block. To satisfy all potential claimants we would then need to build 1,000 of these blocks scattered among NT villages.

Leave alone what this will do to the character of our country parks, who will pay the hideous cost of all the road, water, sewage and power connections that such randomly sited high density housing would require?

The answer, my deal fellow taxpayer, is that you and I will be hit with this enormous bill. The putative villagers will demand it as their right.

Mr Suen has not yet agreed to all of this, of course. He says he only wants a limited trial scheme. The point, however, is that he has started down the road of agreeing to it and once on that road, he will find it very difficult to get off. The Heung Yee Kuk will keep him on it. The kuk has enormous political clout in the Legislative Council.

But it also has one notable weakness. It claims that these village houses are for the personal use of the indigenous villagers.

This was certainly Mr Bray's intention when he introduced the policy in 1972: 'Town dwellers looking for weekend bungalow sites ... will be disappointed in this policy. This policy is for people who need to live in the country now.'

Walk through any NT village, however, and you will know it is not true. Most of the indigenous villagers are gone and have sold or rented their homes to outsiders, many of them non-Chinese expatriates.

So here is a simple solution to the seemingly intractable difficulty that Mr Suen faces, one guaranteed to make his headache go away and never come back.

What you must do, Sir, is slap a 100 per cent tax on resale proceeds of homes built under the policy and a similar 100 per cent tax on rental proceeds.

The Heung Yee Kuk can have no objection. These are dwellings built only for the personal use of indigenous villagers, says the kuk.

It is property that can still be passed on by inheritance and thus the tax will never affect the owners. They want these homes for their personal use alone, do they not?

Try it, Mr Suen and see how fast application pipeline dries up. Take the kuk at its word and your problem is gone.