Time for action on the small-house policy

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

Faced with surging numbers of applications from indigenous villagers of the New Territories, the government has proposed boosting the supply of so-called small houses by increasing the plot ratios of relevant sites. The stopgap measure will be welcomed by frustrated applicants obliged to suffer a long wait, but is one that should not be pursued.

It is time the government faced up to the issue of whether every male indigenous villager from the New Territories has a legal right to build a small house. The proposal amounts to tackling the controversial issue at its edges, not its roots. If implemented, it might complicate the eventual resolution of a controversial policy by bestowing unwarranted legitimacy on a questionable right.

The small-house policy was introduced in 1972 as a temporary measure. Under the policy, all male villagers who can trace their roots back to 1898, when Britain took over the New Territories, are entitled to apply to build an eight-metre-high house on a 700 sqft plot. The policy is said to be founded on Chinese custom that allows every male clan member to build a house for himself on private land. However, while the custom might have been appropriate when the New Territories were rural, it has lost much of its meaning as the region's social conditions and land use changed with urbanisation.

Apart from being discriminatory, as only male villagers are entitled to build small houses, the policy's biggest problem is that it is unsustainable. As every newborn male has that right, it imposes an open-ended commitment on the government. In 2002, the Heung Yee Kuk estimated that about 240,000 people had such a right. At the end of January this year, 11,900 applications to build small houses had been submitted. But as suitable sites are fast running out, only 800 to 1,200 approvals are granted each year.

The way in which the small-house policy has been carried out has also spawned other problems. There is little evidence of proper planning by the government in identifying sites for the houses and granting approvals for their construction. Today, large swathes of the New Territories are dotted with small houses whose designs are out of character with their supposedly traditional roots. In many villages, small houses have been built in what can only be described as a haphazard manner. While the houses are meant to meet indigenous villagers' housing needs, many have been sold or rented to non-indigenous residents.

The government has been fully aware of the policy's shortcomings, and an inter-departmental working group was formed in 1997 to review it. Eight years on, however, the review is still ongoing. Officials say this is because the issues involved are complex.

In a research report released last year, the think-tank Civic Exchange concluded that the delay was linked with the government's unwillingness to risk confrontation with villagers, even as it tried to appease critics and head off legal challenges to the policy. We could not agree more.

Indigenous villagers claim that building a small house is part of their traditional rights under Article 40 of the Basic Law, which provides that 'the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories shall be protected'. But the legal basis of their claim is far from certain. In 1997, during deliberations on equal opportunities legislation, the government reiterated that the small-house policy did not confer legal rights on indigenous villagers.

If that remains its position, the government should be making moves to scrap the policy, instead of allowing it to continue to foster false hopes among the villagers. Abolishing the policy would surely prompt them to mount a legal challenge. But that should be welcomed, as it would give the courts an opportunity to give a definitive ruling on the issues involved. Depending on the courts' decisions, viable policy options could then be formulated to put an end to the controversies surrounding the policy once and for all.