• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 7:22am
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 1:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 1:03am

Government too weak to fight villagers over small house policy


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

The weekend saw another outrage perpetrated by indigenous New Territories villagers in protest against government zoning plans.

A group of them used excavators and machetes to cut down a mangrove at Tai Ho Wan near Tung Chung, which has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The villagers are concerned that once the area was formally zoned, it would restrict their ability to farm the land and more importantly their "right" to build a small house.

This is just another example of the low-level lawlessness that pervades the New Territories, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Hong Kong. Nobody is likely to be prosecuted for this. It's also another example of the government's weakness in dealing with the problem. It set up a committee in 2002 to consider the matter, but when asked its progress will say it is "still studying" the issue.

It is Hong Kong governance at its worst, involving the interplay of politics, property and money.

The policy was set up in 1972 as a temporary measure to deal with the low level of housing in the New Territories. Indigenous male villagers who can trace their descent from a resident in 1898 of a recognised village are eligible.

Since the Lands Department does not keep a list of eligible villagers, village heads have authority to verify the credentials of applicants. Unsurprisingly this has given rise to corruption and irregularities.

It is now recognised that the supply of housing in the New Territories has radically improved since the 1970s, so there is no need for this policy.

However, it has become a valuable perk, and one they will not give up easily. Villagers now believe it is a "right" protected by Article 40 of the Basic Law, though it has yet to be tested in the courts. It is clearly unfair that one section of the community should be given this significant financial opportunity while urban dwellers aren't.

Aside from being discriminatory, it has led to poor planning and uncontrolled suburban sprawl. Some villages have been cut off from vehicular access because some landowner, incredibly, has been able to build a house directly over the only access road.

There has also been a certain amount of illegal destruction of rural land to convert rural lands to "possible" development sites, the Civic Exchange points out in its report last year "Small House Policy II, An Update".

The same report mentions that, the managing director of Surpass Property Strategy Consultancy said, in 2002, that more than 80 per cent of the small houses were built for sale "rather than for occupancy by the indigenous villager".

The government for its part has sat on its hands. There was brave talk from Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor - when she was development secretary - who said the policy should be discontinued. But that dried up after she became chief secretary.

Since then the government has had so many political battles to fight that it doesn't have the stomach for taking on new ones. So when faced with angry villagers it invariably backs down. What are the prospects for action any time soon on this?

Despite the environmental degradation, poor planning, the corruption it engenders and illegal development, the government is likely to do very little. It needs the support of the Heung Yee Kuk which represents indigenous villagers. The group commands a significant number of votes on the chief executive selection committee and in the Legislative Council. In view of the government's reluctance to deal with the small house policy we are likely to see more of the kind of events that occurred over the weekend. The government's strategy appears to be to leave it to the next administration.

Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com


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This article is now closed to comments

John Adams
Howard : This is one your best-ever columns
"It is Hong Kong governance at its worst, involving the interplay of politics, property and money" . You said it all !
But where is the ICAC in all of this ?
It seems nowhere (so far) ..... but yet there is obviously corruption on a vast scale
(Perhaps that's not surprising given the length of time it took the ICAC to 'discover' a certain very top civil servant was obviously living far beyond his means .... and how much is this trial-of -the-century now costing us in legal fees ?)
Makes me sick, REALLY SICK .
NT 3 storey house
Village head rubber stamps the applicant & pads bank account
Teesside & Amsterdam chip shop owners' sons sign over the deng uk for a fee
Freebie land allocated
Jerry build the hovel 900k-1.2m with tattooed unskilled workers
Offer out to rent 29k
Offer for sale 12 million
Yes that's a million quid to make some NT buffalo bum follower rich (& lands department deputy head even if she and her husband bought the land instead of Deng Uk -18.8m land cost - get the change of use rubber stamped - build 4 houses (5m) - sell 4 houses @12m -13m ; add 30m profit to bank account whilst continuing to draw directorate grade salary)
Then - Buy a piece of land & legally extort existing residents by blocking the village access road to their homes, & Govt allows this
Simon Berry
This one of the best articles SCMP has published for years.
The small house policy is nothing less than a statement that the threat of violence can be used by one group of thugs (there is no better word to describe them) to extort considerable benefits for themselves at the expense of the rest of Hong Kong's society.
Hong Kong has lost the rule of law - it is a city in decline because Donal Tsang allowed a corrupt police force to once again prosper and line the pockets of his family; sadly CY has no interest in the restoring the rule of law and the result is a city that is simply dying ...
John Adams
I thought Tung Chee-Wah was a bad CE ( he was indeed so, technically, but not morally) and I hoped that Donald Tsang would put things right.
But now I see that in fact Donald "do-nothing" - "I will get the job done ... like hell I won't " Tsang was in fact even worse than dear old Mr Tung what with his zero policy on pollution (Edward Lau - was that his name (?) as the most useless ever Environment Secretary) , Timothy Tong as the "corrupt" head of the ICAC , and now all this stuff in the NT with Fat Lau running the show which dates back years / decades.
And Donald's own corruption case, eating from the tycoon's pig trough, has still to be investigated by the ICAC.
I still remember that 'guilty' photo of him in a red sweater guzzling in Macau , which says it all.
Not to mention the pan- dems who took part in the CX junket to Paris but don't have the moral character to resign (Mr Albert Ho ... !)
How far can we sink before we become "one country - one system" ?
USD8000 per night suites
Sunseeker Macau joyride on boat owned by tobacco baron, 2 weeks after no tobacco tax increase in HK budget
Same Tobacco tycoon protector of Bauhinia rubber stamp thinktank w/ reliable Anthony WU in charge
Bauhinia members become political appointees /Hospital Authority board whilst under-investigation accountant WU lands Hospital Authority job
Private jet joyrides (with bodyguard in tow?)
Phuket free helicopter jaunt
Free Macau hotel suite for family
Filmed dining w/ iffy persona in Macau
Double storey penthouse retirement fiasco
Misconduct in Public Office a Common Law offence
(1) a public official
(2) in the course of or in relation to his public office
(3) wilfully misconducts himself; by act or omission (for example by wilfully neglecting or failing to perform his duty)
(4) without reasonable excuse or justification; &
(5) where such misconduct is serious, not trivial, having regard to the responsibilities of the office & the office-holder,the importance of the public objects which they serve & the nature and extent of the departure from those responsibilities.
The essential feature of the offence is an abuse by the public official of the powers, discretions or duties exercisable by virtue of his official position conferred on him for the public benefit
Vey Good article, you will not have made any friends in the villages :-)
The government follows the Dilbert Principal
"Never be in the same room as a decision", they are totally weak.
Aside from not too slow pace in the development of ‘I will look after myself too’ attitude, this defying act against the protected mangrove is an open challenge to government and society that self-interest needs not to be concealed from public.
If people in Hong Kong take this incidence lightly social chaos is clearly to multiply down the road. The perpetrators should be prosecuted. The mangrove should be restored if possible.
The SHP should be terminated with a plan. Lau from NT should leave the Executive Council. It is never too early to stop playing up to a big mistake in NT.
Last: We, the undersigned, hereby petition the HKSAR Chief Executive, C.Y Leung to:
1) Abolish the divisive, discriminatory, outdated and unsustainable Small House Policy without any further delay
2) or, at the very least: Amend the SHP without undue delay so that the SHP no longer applies within Country Park boundaries
Leung Chun-ying GBM, GBS, JP, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
Abolish Small House Policy
Launched: 09 June 2014
The Small House Policy (SHP) was introduced by the former Hong Kong Government in 1972 and has NO EXPIRY DATE. Its original objective was to improve the prevailing low standard of living in the rural areas of the New Territories (NT). It is an ADMINISTRATIVE POLICY designed to simplify the basic right of any indigenous MALE NT villager (wherever born) reaching the age of 18 to build a house FOR HIMSELF TO OCCUPY in his ancestral village. The policy is out of control and is now the cause of widespread abuse and illegality.
The Government has stated that no more government land will be provided for NT small houses and when the unused village land runs out, that will be that. However, there is now such unprecedented pressure by villagers and developers (to whom many of the former have already surreptitiously sold their land) that the villages are crammed with wall to wall housing without planned access roads, sewage, drainage or public amenities.
More importantly, there are schemes afoot to fill the village enclaves inside HK's Country Parks with large, incompatible developments with no regard for the environment or the interests of the general public for whom the parks are an extremely popular amenity.




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