Rising from the depths
Following repeated tragedies in Tin Shui Wai, dating from as far back as 1999, this new town of some 300,000 residents has been placed firmly in the limelight. Much has been said about the 'mismatch' between planning and reality, with an overconcentration of public-housing tenants - 60 per cent in the town, compared with a Hong Kong-wide average of 30 per cent (in Tin Shui Wai North, the figure is 85 per cent).
Although it has a greener and more spacious living environment than urban public housing estates, the remoteness of Tin Shui Wai means that those willing to live there tend to be new migrants, in the low-income bracket, with many receiving social security assistance.
Also, a private, middle-class housing development has not been fully realised, as had been originally planned.
All this feeds a vicious cycle of shrinking economic capacity that does not bode well for local businesses, thus further reducing job opportunities.
Expensive inter-district transport means that some families are cut off from other parts of city life. Being mostly new migrants, they lack the necessary social and neighbourhood networks, or friends and relatives, to connect with. They feel secluded and abandoned, and their home is labelled a 'city of despair'.
Community facilities are inadequate: for example, residents have to travel to Yuen Long for emergency medical services and it has been said that it will take 10 years to build a much-needed hospital.
Poor links between social services and needy families aggravate the situation. Compound this with family and other social problems, and you have a hotbed for tragedy.
Developing new towns and public housing in outlying areas is one way to avoid clustering the population in urban centres, and to open up new frontiers of socio-economic activities.
New towns are usually planned on the basis of normal social distribution, a good mix of economic, educational, community and government activities, and transport infrastructure. In reality, however, transport links and employment often lag behind the build-up of population, as Tuen Mun discovered two decades ago in a similar planning disaster.
Pumping in funds to Tin Shui Wai would, arguably, be an easy response, but not the proper one. The real challenge is how to rebuild economic, social and geographical connectivity - to jobs, services and the city. The answer lies in regeneration, which sounds ironic for a 'new' town.
Like the rejuvenation of urban slums or old factory towns in big cities, a strategy is needed to attract the up-and-coming, young middle class to move in, with their new consumption and investment power, thereby creating new dynamism.
Tin Shui Wai may lack economic resources now but, in the long run, it should mature. The better-educated youngsters would grow up to be higher-income working adults, and local families could gradually move up the social ladder.
An extra mile of care and support - such as access to extracurricular activities in schools, subsidised computers and activity centres for teenagers, and transport assistance for working adults - may provide a crucial tipping point.
Instead of reinforcing the mentality that residents should move out once their income has improved, more economically active newcomers should be encouraged to move in. In addition, more government, business and community operations should be located there. With its good physical environment, Tin Shui Wai has the potential to be turned into an alternative model of local governance, which would be relevant to other districts.
The government should take this as a test case for co-ordinated action in collaboration with business, developers, schools, service organisations and non-governmental organisations.
A multisector taskforce, headed by an empowered town manager, should be formed, to engage stakeholders, seek out and build on the local social capital, and come up with a home-based strategy.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank