Public consensus has to be heeded

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am


Public consultations are a mixed blessing to good governance. When they do not arrive at a clear consensus on legislative or administrative proposals, vested interests quickly move in to exert pressure and the result is official procrastinating and backtracking.

But when public consultations arrive at a solid consensus, things can get done. An example - so far - is a draft law to curb misleading sales practices by developers and improve transparency in the housing market. Following a supportive community consultation, it will be introduced in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

Housing and transport secretary Eva Cheng says the consultation revealed a clear consensus that legislation should be enacted as soon as possible. There are concerns, however, that the council may fail to pass the bill before its term ends in July, because of opposition from developers. In that case, the process would have to be relaunched from the beginning under the administration of a new chief executive.

The key issue is the proposal to end the practice of using gross floor area - the saleable area of a flat plus its share of all manner of common areas - to represent the size of a flat in marketing and sales material. Developers want to continue to use GFA as well as the saleable area for 'reference' purposes, instead of simply specifying common areas that add value, such as parking, club houses and swimming pools. Cheng points out the difficulty of regulating something with no standard in a law that makes the supply of false and misleading information a criminal offence attracting imprisonment and heavy fines.

Having first endorsed the principle of a level playing field for sellers and buyers, the Real Estate Developers Association now says the legislation would infringe on its members' right of free speech and not survive a legal challenge. This may, therefore, be a drawn-out affair. But the consultation clearly showed that public anger over developers' sales tactics, aggravated by an increasing affordability gap, has not gone away. We can only hope the government does not back down.