Shaky base for law of concrete jungle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


Based on the population benchmark from the results of the 2011 Population Census, the population figures for end-2006 to mid-2011 have been revised (Table 2).

Government news release, February 21

That brief statement was buried 10 paragraphs down in the news release and it did not say which way the population figures had been revised.

This should be no surprise. It happens every five years at census time. The findings always show a smaller population than our statisticians had projected. But they just ignore it and keep pushing up their forecasts.

The chart shows you how it works. The red line on top represents the semi-annual population growth rate as estimated by Census and Statistics up to June last year, the latest date that an estimate was published before the census data was made available.

The blue line represents the adjusted growth rate that the statisticians have compiled now that they have the hard figures. Notice how their adjustment pushes down the growth rate of earlier years and then pretends that over the last year the growth rate has risen again and is higher than earlier projections.

It is routinely done this way - 'Yeah, we got it wrong but that was a few years ago and now we have it right and, oh dear, look how our population is growing once more.'

It leaves you with one obvious question. Why? What good reason could there be for trying to pull the wool over our eyes this way?

Let me suggest one. Look at the evidence of the second chart of how public sector construction spending has more than doubled over the last three years. Donald is a firm believer in the Law of Concrete: thou shalt pour at least 10 million tonnes a year. He has hugely boosted infrastructure spending.

There are all kinds of reasons why he might wish to do this. He might believe, for instance, that it boosts overall employment (it does not) or that it secures political support from those rotten boroughs, the functional constituencies, in the Legislative Council (it does).

But whatever the bad reasons for doing it, there can only be one good reason and this is that we need all these roads, railways and bridges and the dense residential packing of the New Territories. Donald's problem is that even he cannot entirely evade having to provide this good reason.

We would only need to pour all this concrete, however, if we had not poured enough in the past or if our population were growing so fast that we must pour a great deal more for the future. The first proposition is manifestly not true and therefore we must rely on the second.

And, guess what - it's the second we get, every time that someone in government talks population. Our transport planning, for instance, is still heavily based on wildly inaccurate population forecasts in a 1996 study, 'CTS3'. Overly high population projections continue to curse the new towns with higher construction densities than they need.

But, our planners continue to clap their hands over their eyes and call out the cement mixers, pointing all the while to suspect studies with inflated population numbers.

The only immediate difference I see is that our politicians have fixated themselves this time on how the census shows that our population is ageing (people do) and something must be done about it.

I don't see how it is the business of our politicians in any way. Whether to have children, whether to move elsewhere, or whether to adopt a healthy lifestyle to live longer are highly individual and personal choices.

But, whatever the something that must be done turns out to be, I'm sure it will not break the Law of Concrete.