Plug loophole that leads to ever bigger buildings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

After political reform, what is Hong Kong's biggest problem? Many would say land and housing. I would agree, after hearing people's views on building design recently.

I and my colleagues at the Council for Sustainable Development gathered public opinion on the issue and presented the government with recommendations. We sought views on such issues as the distance between buildings, the amount of green space around them and the energy efficiency of buildings.

Over four months, we received views from architects, planners, developers and others who argued, for example, that new regulations should not discourage innovative design. We also heard from end users: people who have bought, or plan to buy, homes, and everyone else who simply live and work in and around buildings.

It became clear that there is serious public dissatisfaction about specific aspects of the way our buildings are planned and designed.

Much of this concerns gross floor area (GFA) concessions - permission for developers to build bigger buildings in exchange for incorporating features that supposedly serve the public interest in some way. The idea was well-intentioned, but developers found ways to use these concessions to significantly boost the size of developments. The impact is especially noticeable in big developments.

I have never bought a home in Hong Kong, so I was not fully aware how building design affects buyers - but I soon learned. We all know a flat of 800 square feet may in fact be 600 sq ft. But I was surprised at how little buyers are told about where the missing space is. It could be in the swimming pool or in the club house, features that have grown in size thanks to GFA concessions. Even car parks and mail delivery areas attract GFA concessions.

It goes without saying that this is controversial, especially given the sensitivity over government collusion with big business. It has boosted developers' profits. (In some cases, developers have complained about the system because rivals planning to exploit the concessions to the maximum outbid them at land auctions, probably adding more to government coffers in the process.)

The media's focus on this part of the council's recommendations reflects widespread discontent with the way GFA concessions lead to a perceived lack of fairness and transparency in property sales, as well as bulkier buildings and thus a worsening quality of life. We can expect a debate on how much GFA concessions should be reduced, or at what level they should be capped. Green groups in particular will call for a far less generous system.

The green groups and the press have criticised the council for not recommending an appropriate level of concessions.

It is not, as some have suggested, because we are 'afraid' of the developers; it is that our job is to gather views objectively and make recommendations to the government, which will have to decide on what's appropriate.

My view is that officials must recognise the strength of public opinion on this subject and get building size under control, and they should resort to legislation if necessary. The question is: are our officials afraid of the developers?

Our 51 recommendations, which cover the mandatory building setback on narrow streets and the minimum space between buildings, among other things, can be seen on the council's website.

The status quo, as the report says, is not an option. It is clear from the report that Hong Kong people are not just aspiring to a better quality of life, they are demanding it. That is why - in keeping with the spirit of the recent breakthrough in political reform - we have called the report 'a mandate for change'.

Bernard Chan is chairman of the Council for Sustainable Development