Housing Society under fire
By NG KANG-CHUNG
THE Housing Society is facing escalating pressure to surrender part of its autonomy because some of its members have interests in firms doing business with the body itself.
The possible threat of conflicts of interest has prompted a demand by legislators and housing watchdogs for public representatives to be appointed to the board and meetings to be opened to the community.
The attacks follow a disclosure that the firms of at least three of the society's 19 executive committee members have been appointed as its accredited consultants.
Society chairman Tan Man-kou is a partner of the accountancy firm Kwan Wong Tan & Fong Certified Public Accountants. The firm has been the society's sole accountancy consultant for at least six years.
Levett and Bailey Chartered Quantity Surveyors, of which member Albert Cheung Ho-sang is a partner, has been a consultant to the society since 1991, according to the society's annual reports. Mr Cheung has been a society member since 1991.
And fellow member Cheng Hon-kwan's architectural firm is also on the accredited consultancy list. Annual reports published before 1991 do not contain consultancy lists.
The three members did not respond to inquiries last week and society vice-chairman John Loo Wun-loong also refused to comment.
The society's executive committee makes decisions on the society's finance, building programmes, tendering and administration and is accountable only to itself. Members are not required to publicly declare their interests.
The Housing Society, set up in 1948, has been an 'independent' body immune from public monitoring. It manages about 50 residential blocks and rental estates, with net assets of $4.6 billion as of March 31 last year.
A plan was announced in 1992 to produce 6,000 rental flats and 7,900 units for sale by the turn of the century.
As a non-profit making organisation, the society obtains cheap land from the Government.
Land for building rental flats is granted at one-third of market value while that for the flat-for-sale scheme is offered at half the market price.
The Government last year appointed the Housing Society to help manage the $2 billion sandwich-class housing loan scheme. In July, a low-interest government loan of $7 billion was given to help fund the building of low-price flats for the sandwich class.
The society has no appointment system and whoever the existing members think suitable may be invited to sit on the committee. Membership can be lifelong if members do not retire.
The Hong Kong Housing Society Incorporation Ordinance allows the society to be governed by its own constitution, which the executive committee may amend at any time.
The law only requires the society to register its constitution with the Company Registry and to pay registration fees.
While three members on the executive committee are government officials, they are acting in personal capacities and do not represent the Government. They are Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands Tony Eason, Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews and Director of Lands Robert Pope.
Although legislators and housing groups agree the members' firms are renowned for top-quality work, they maintain 'justice has to be seen to be done'.
Legislative Council housing affairs panel member Lee Wing-tat said: 'We do not intend to attack the members. They are doing well and have contributed a lot to the housing area.
'But a closed system is no longer suitable in today's community.' and the society has to reform.' Former chief secretary and Housing Authority chairman Sir David Akers-Jones, who has been a society member for 15 years, said: 'We are not a secret society.
'We produce annual reports and issue various kinds of public relations information. I do not know how much more open we can be.'