Leung must scrap small house policy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am


Where there is a will, there is a way. But our government does not seem to appreciate this wisdom when reviewing the controversial 'small house' policy. The scheme that gives all male indigenous villagers the right to build a three-storey house is clearly discriminatory, unsustainable and flawed. Yet, it has been allowed to continue for decades despite blatant abuses. Officials have failed to show political will or a sensible way to resolve the deadlock that disrupts land supply, spoils the environment and jeopardises social harmony.

There is a strong case to bring this colonial legacy to an end. Regrettably, years have passed and the situation is worsening. A total of 36,912 small house applications have been approved over the past 40 years. By January, 6,895 applications were still being processed. An estimate in 2003 put the eligible numbers at 240,000. With just 1,620 hectares of rural land available, it is clear the policy is hardly sustainable.

This paper has been advocating to scrap the much-criticised policy. We revisited the policy recently, dusting off decades-old declassified documents to see how the scheme has deviated from the original policy objective. Formulated in 1972, the scheme was meant to be an interim fix to poor housing in rural areas and to promote cohesiveness among the indigenous village community. Villagers have to demonstrate a clear housing need. But clearly the policy has been abused over the years, with villagers selling the properties for quick profits. They went further to entrench this privilege, saying it forms part of their lawful traditional rights, which are protected by the Basic Law.

That argument is difficult to accept. The legal experts interviewed by this paper shared the same opinion. They rightly pointed out that the traditional rights should refer to those dating back to 1898, when the British took over the New Territories. But policies must be allowed to meet changing social conditions, instead of entrenching what is essentially unfair to urban dwellers. A former top official involved in the scheme at the early stage also criticised it as unsustainable from the outset and called for a radical rethink.

It makes no sense to talk of traditional land rights for indigenous villagers when urban and rural Hong Kong has been reunited with China for 15 years. This questionable housing policy is already splitting the community and upsetting social stability and harmony. It is reassuring to hear that chief executive-designate Leung Chun-ying intends to 'settle' the issue in his term. Hopefully, the change in leadership will bring stronger political will and better ways to resolve the problem. The small house policy must not be allowed to continue.