Town planners mustn't overlook jobs

Bernard Chan says long commutes put a strain on finances and well-being

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Hong Kong's unemployment rate is less than 4per cent. We are lucky: in the US it is over 8per cent, and in Greece and Spain it is approaching shocking 20-25per cent levels.

Even so, joblessness is a problem for parts of our community. These include some ethnic minorities, new mainland immigrants and people (often from those two groups) who live relatively long distances from the core urban areas.

I recently visited the Labour Department's one-stop employment and training centre at Tin Shui Wai, in the New Territories. The facilities are excellent. People can browse job openings on computers. Information is available in a variety of languages, and there are specialised services for the middle-aged, ethnic minorities and other groups.

Most important of all, perhaps, was the feel of the centre; it is an environment designed to treat people with dignity and give them confidence.

As our unemployment figures suggest, it should not be too hard to find a job, especially given the opportunities for training available at the job centres. Yet the problem remains, and to some extent it is literally built into our city's structure.

The new towns like Tin Shui Wai are a long way from most of the jobs, and to people on low wages, the costs of travel can make all the difference between taking the job and rejecting it.

The government is aware of this and has been trying ways to subsidise transport for the low-paid living in certain districts. Even if we could make all travel more affordable for them, however, such workers would still face time-consuming commutes.

It is especially difficult for people in jobs like catering where hours are long or there is a break in the working day. In some cases, family life becomes very difficult, and there are issues like young children coming home from school before parents get back from work.

The idea behind new towns was logical, and in many ways they have been a great success. They are mostly far more spacious than the old urban areas, and they have modern schools, shops, clinics and parks. But when the first new towns were built in the 1970s, Hong Kong was still a manufacturing centre. Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun were near factories. Planners assumed that residents would work near their homes, but of course that is not how things worked out.

In the next decade, more residential areas are likely to be developed in the northern New Territories. It is vital that planners think about employment opportunities in these new developments early on, when they are still drawing up blueprints.

One thing we must do is provide enough space for small local businesses. There must be enough so that it is affordable.

The experience with the privatisation of the public housing estates' malls ,through The Link real estate investment trust, provides a lesson. A shortage of space drives small entrepreneurs out of business as rents rise and big chain stores move in.

It is also important that we plan competition into these settlements, so we do not end up with just one or a few landlords controlling all the commercial space.

The private sector would probably welcome the opportunity to locate support functions in these areas if space is available and the cost is right.

Such commercial activities in future estates - possibly taking advantage of the proximity to the border - could help stimulate the economy in existing towns like Tin Shui Wai.

And what about Hong Kong's biggest employer? A lot of government back-office work is located in premises in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Migrating such activities to the new residential areas would create jobs there directly and indirectly, and free up space in the urban areas.

Some people would say that adding commercial space in new towns could further damage the rural environment. So far as possible, we should definitely try to protect the countryside as we provide new housing.

But the basic point remains: planners of future residential areas need to plan for job opportunities as well.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council