U.R.A. turns tables on Tang
Olga Wong and Peter So
A day after criticising the Urban Renewal Authority for selling 'pricey' and 'fancy' flats, chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen had to defend himself yesterday against counter-criticism that he approved the authority's expensive projects when he was financial secretary.
Authority chairman Barry Cheung Chun-yuen hit back in a radio programme yesterday morning, saying its projects needed approval from Tang, who was the financial secretary between 2003 and 2007.
He said he felt obliged to defend his staff, even though he was currently on leave to help campaign for Tang's rival for the chief executive job, Leung Chun-ying.
'I feel obliged to speak up in their defence,' he said. 'They have worked hard and done a lot for residents living in old areas of the city. I think their contribution should not be denied by [such a] comment.'
He said a government agency should not be 'dragged through the mud' for political gain in an election campaign.
'The authority was set up to implement government policy and all projects were developed according to the law and the government's instructions,' Cheung said.
Projects approved under Tang's tenure include the Queen's Cube in Wan Chai, which gained notoriety for its small flats and high prices.
Responding later yesterday, Tang clarified his initial comment, saying he and his office approved the authority's development projects on the basis of cost, but was not involved in the pricing of the flats.
'The process of examination only involved the consideration of the costs but not the prices when the flats were sold,' Tang said, admitting he had approved some of the authority's expensive redevelopment projects.
'Sometimes, the cost of the project was quite high,' he said. 'I approved those projects based on my belief that the cost of redeveloping the old districts was warranted.'
He said the authority should not just take on projects that would be profitable since it was not a business.
'It needs to have a public mission, which is to improve the living environment in the old districts through urban renewal,' Tang said.
But his clarifications drew further criticism from an academic and a lawmaker.
'I think he's just playing with words,' said Chau Kwong-wing, a professor who specialises in land and housing issues at the University of Hong Kong.
'As a financial secretary, he should have looked at the financial viability of the redevelopment projects. It can't be true that he only approved the cost but not the price,' Chau said. 'Would he still have approved the projects if they were loss-making?'
Ip Kwok-him, a lawmaker and the authority's non-executive director, disagreed with Tang's assessment of the housing body.
'The authority has conducted many non-profit projects in recent years, particularly for heritage conservation,' he said.
On Thursday, Tang questioned the authority's role and described flats redeveloped by the authority as 'extremely pricey' and 'fancy'.
Cheung said the authority began a review of its renewal strategy two years ago and Tang, as a member of the Executive Council who approved the strategy, had never in the course of the review aired the criticisms he was now levelling at the authority.
Under the current financial model, the authority should be self-financing in the long term after receiving HK$10 billion from the government in 2002 - the year in which it was set up. It is also required to sell flats at market rates.
In one of the projects approved by Tang, Queen's Cube in Wan Chai, a 400 sq ft flat in the development was sold for HK$5.97 million - equal to HK$14,888 per square foot of gross floor area.