Henry, you have not thought this through

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am


In a meeting with more than 1,000 village representatives, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen proposed relaxing the height rule on village houses to allow more people to live on each plot of land.

SCMP, Oct 23

I'm not certain about Henry. Is he just ignorant or is he really willing to destroy the country parks for a handful of votes in the election for chief executive?

When you consider that he also wants to introduce universal pensions it seems probable that he simply doesn't know what he is saying. First he proposes a very costly social programme and then he proposes destroying one of the major revenue sources that could fund it.

There is obviously a disconnect between thought (if any) and mouth here. Shall we start up the wine tax again to raise the money, Henry? Would you vote for that?

But surely a man running for senior political office in Hong Kong cannot be entirely ignorant of the dynamics of land development in 90 per cent of its land area. Or can he? Perhaps it is kindest to assume that he can. The alternative would reflect even worse on him.

Let's review this matter of the small village house policy. It was adopted in the early 1970s as a temporary way of relieving population pressures in the New Territories. Each male villager over the age of 18 was given a right, the ding uk, to build for himself in his village a home with a site area of no more than 700 sq ft and no more than three storeys.

It was very definitely stated at the time that this was only a temporary measure and for resident villagers only. Government officials warned city residents not to try to take advantage of it for cheap housing or holiday homes.

Let us leave aside for the moment that the policy is blatantly sexist in excluding women. Let us also ignore that any walk in the New Territories quickly reveals that these villages have largely become expatriate ghettoes with the original villagers long gone.

The point I want to emphasise today is that the New Territories village lobby, the Heung Yee Kuk (motto: anything you want as long as you pay me), says that the ding uk is not temporary but a right that has existed since time immemorial. This is a very convenient time as it obviates the need for documentation that does not exist.

The difficulty is the kuk's own last estimate about eight years ago that some 250,000 people are entitled to this right - a number that can only have grown since that time.

Do the maths. Enter 250,000 in your calculator, hit the times button, enter 2,100 for the square footage of each entitlement, and now hit the equals button. Yes, this amounts to a development right of more than 500 million sq ft, about half of Hong Kong's existing housing stock.

It can't be done. The idea is ridiculous and government officials know it, which is why they have choked the pipeline on ding uk applications. They have to let some through or admit the policy is entirely defunct but fortunately they have developed their own way over time immemorial of slowing things down.

This has prompted the kuk to come up with a new dodge. Why not allow entitled villagers to put their individual entitlements together and then lift the height restriction.

And Henry has swallowed it. Do some maths again. Let us propose a typical kuk agglomeration block - 50 storeys tall with 10 flats per floor of 500 sq ft each. We would need 2,000 of these blocks to satisfy the full entitlement.

Of course, Henry says he is only talking of blocks of six to nine storeys tall but this is just further proof he has swallowed the kuk's hook. Such blocks are impractical for reasons of the lifts alone. The new height limitation would swiftly be raised.

Think of it, 2,000 big residential blocks slathered right throughout the country parks and we in the city would have to pay all the enormous ancillary costs of roads, water, sewage, power, schools and the list just goes on and on.

The kuk might not insist on the actual buildings, of course but would certainly insist on full compensation (anything you want as long as you ...)

Henry's opponent, Leung Chun-ying, recognises the difficulties, which is why he took the standard government approach to this idea - we'll think about it.

But Henry? Well, who knows what those thought processes are or how deep (or shallow) they might go. Let's be kind and say that he just hasn't thought it through. Let's also be practical and say that such a person is not quite ready for high public office.