Stopping the rot

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am


Urban decay is among the most urgent social problems in Hong Kong today. More than 110,000 families live in these unhealthy and unsafe homes. The consequences can be fatal: four people were killed last year when an ageing block of flats collapsed in Ma Tau Wai.

A similar tragedy could happen again elsewhere in our city unless urgent action is taken to tackle this threat to the lives and comfort of so many families. The Urban Renewal Authority has conducted an extensive investigation of this dangerous housing. The findings are grim. About 4,000 blocks in Hong Kong are already over 50 years old. The total is set to increase four times, to 16,000, over the next 20 years.

These buildings were constructed using reinforced concrete that was not designed to last more than 50 years. Inevitably, large numbers of them suffer from serious dilapidation, especially when little money has been spent on their repair and maintenance over the years.

The URA's survey classified 3,000 buildings as already substandard. The alarming state of the structures is matched by dreadful standards of accommodation. Living conditions for most of their occupants can only be described as squalid. Typically, three or more families are packed into the average flat of around 500 sq ft. The common areas are filthy and prone to flooding, and there is a constant threat of fires caused by defective electrical wiring and fittings.

Efforts by the URA and the government have reduced the number of such substandard buildings in recent years. But we need to do a lot more - and urgently. The URA is determined to increase its rehabilitation and redevelopment efforts. We cannot succeed without the community's support.

The government's new urban renewal strategy, the result of a two-year consultation exercise, sets out how Hong Kong people generally want urban decay to be tackled. The strategy has been reshaped and redesigned in response to the community's input about the problems and priorities. In other words, the people have spoken and we now need to act quickly.

The strategy will empower the URA to end the shame of our slums and free many more families from the misery of living in homes plainly unfit for human habitation. For a start, we are taking major steps to improve the options for those most affected by the process.

Compensation, for example, will always be a sensitive issue. In the past, we have tried to provide generous rather than fair compensation. In future, we will be able to offer more choices, including a flat-for-flat arrangement. These new homes may be in the lower floors of the redevelopment itself. But they may also be in Kai Tak, where the URA is buying from the government a 1.1-hectare site next year.

This should provide about 1,000 flats of saleable area of between 400 and 600 sq ft. Under a pilot scheme, people who choose the flat-for-flat arrangement will receive our usual cash compensation. With this money, they will be able to choose between new flats in the redevelopment or at the Kai Tak site. To make sure that families have all the information they need to make the decision, we will provide full details of the prices of the new flats on the day we make our acquisition offer for their old flats, and this price will be locked.

The new strategy also clearly defines redevelopment and rehabilitation as the URA's core mission, and we have been given a broader mandate to engage in, or respond to, schemes to help people in need. We particularly want to preserve the freedom of owners to revitalise their properties by repairing and renovating the buildings for themselves. All too often, this is not happening both because of financial constraints on the owners' part and because most of these buildings have no proper management committees.

Under the new strategy, we will be more pluralistic in our redevelopment approach. In the past, we basically selected, initiated and undertook projects ourselves. Henceforth, we will act as a facilitator and 'demand-led implementer' in support of owners who wish to dispose of their flats.

As a facilitator, we will be able to act as an honest intermediary for owners, to help them pool their interests for auction of their building in the marketplace. As a demand-led implementer, we will respond to the owners' request for the URA to step in and acquire their properties for redevelopment purposes, subject to fulfilment of certain criteria. This new approach would allow us to strengthen our redevelopment efforts with our limited resources.

The URA will also assist owners to undertake adequate repair and maintenance of their homes. Last month, we launched a comprehensive scheme to help owners revitalise their buildings. A one-stop service hub, the Urban Renewal Resource Centre, will start operation later this year in Tai Kok Tsui. The URA's new strategy reaffirms the organisation of its re- development programme on a district-based approach. This strategy enables us to balance out the sometimes competing demands of preservation, rehabilitation and redevelopment. It also allows us to work with the community more effectively. In older districts, the government's plan is to set up district urban renewal forums. These will have a mix of government, URA, non-governmental organisation, and business and professional representatives who can contribute to the planning process. We have pioneered this approach in tackling the revitalisation of the old Central Market. This has been led by the Central Oasis Community Advisory Committee, whose team of academics, professionals, community leaders and others has produced exciting preliminary designs.

Too many Hong Kong people still live in appalling conditions in one of the world's wealthiest cities. The new urban renewal strategy has given us the means and the opportunity to take bold action to transform these slums and end this blight. The URA pledges to live up to the community's expectations.

Barry Cheung Chun-yuen is chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority