Small-house policy has no place here
The reasons why the government's small-house policy for the New Territories should be scrapped are numerous, although they can be neatly summed up in three words: it is discriminatory, outdated and unsustainable. Authorities have long known of the problems, but have done little to resolve the core issues and have struggled to handle the lesser ones. This newspaper's investigation detailing how indigenous villagers not even living in Hong Kong are breaking the rules to gain a swift profit and developers are skirting land zoning requirements are further cause to bring the policy to an end. Promptly investigating the matter and punishing any offenders and closing the loopholes would be a good way to give such a process impetus.
It is a black-and-white issue, not a grey one, as a legislator has suggested. Wong Chuk Yeung village in a Sai Kung country park enclave is deserted, its indigenous residents having long ago moved out, some to Britain. They are abusing the spirit and letter of the policy by signing away their rights to a three-storey house of no more than 2,100 sq ft to developers for either a new flat on the site or a payment of up to HK$500,000 in cash. The villagers avoid the expense and trouble of building the small house themselves - and of paying a land premium if they sell it within five years; the developers get to build properties with a potentially lucrative resale value without having to go through the inconvenience and cost of rezoning, while also avoiding the premium for buying village land.
This is not what the government had in mind in introducing the policy in 1972. The objective was to temporarily fix a housing shortage and improve hygiene and sanitation in the New Territories. But those it applies to, indigenous male villagers of 18 years and older, and their powerful rural representative body, the Heung Yee Kuk, have sought to turn it into an inalienable right to build houses. There are those who abide by the rules, but as our report shows, some also abuse them and more often than not the reason is financial gain. Villages full of houses bought by or rented to people who have moved in from elsewhere are evidence of that.
The policy is discriminatory to women and urban residents. It has despoiled large swathes of the New Territories, caused drainage and water problems and led to corruption and property speculation. Plainly, as Development Minister Carrie Cheng Yuet-ngor pointed out on Wednesday, it is unsustainable. The kuk estimated in 2002 the policy applied to 240,000 villagers and many more have since turned 18. There is simply not enough land for them all to be able to build a house. Authorities have for too long ignored the abuses of the policy. It no longer has a place in Hong Kong. A way has to be found to bring it to an end. That is essential if our city is to sustainably grow and thrive.