Housing is Leung's battle to fight
Philip Yeung says the chief executive is right to focus on housing
It has been a toe-curling first 100 days for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. In fact, he may be the first modern government leader to be denied a political honeymoon. It is really not his fault. He has been handed a poisoned chalice by his do-nothing predecessor.
From what I can see, Leung is a sincere activist leader who is anxious to do the best for us. His has been the most responsive administration since the handover. Just look at his actions on parallel traders and pregnant mainlanders.
But his job has been made tougher by the Legislative Council election results. If he wants to effect changes that require Legco approval, he will have to slog it out. But outside the chamber, there is plenty of room to bring about the desired changes.
Everybody can see he has put housing on the front burner. He has been forced to tread cautiously, so as not to burst the housing bubble when the world economy is already so brittle. Yet, his careful steps have not cooled the market. If anything, prices have climbed.
This doesn't mean Leung is strategically stymied. Broadly speaking, he has three strategic moves open to him. Many blame sky-high property prices on insufficient supply. If this is the case, why is the government turning a blind eye to the 200,000 or so flats that are said to be sitting unoccupied? In a tight market, hoarding properties is immoral, and should be illegal. The government should slap a surtax on flats left vacant for more than a year; the longer they remain so, the higher the punitive tax. This simple administrative move would bring instant results.
Second, close a legal loophole in flat purchasing. Hong Kong has a near water-tight control in money laundering in the banking sector, but curiously flat buyers are exempt. The Inland Revenue Department should be alerted when multimillion-dollar properties are bought outright. Newly elected legislator Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong has promised to raise the problem of the potentially nefarious activities of mainland flat-buyers when the legislature convenes. As an accountant, he should know.
There have been scandalous tales of mainland buyers handing over 200 million yuan in 100-yuan notes in a developer's office. When the buyer resells, the profits plus the original purchase price have all become clean money. This kind of behaviour should be a thing of the past.
Third, unblock the bureaucratic bottlenecks in approving building permits. Hong Kong civil servants are at their best when handling matters within their own departments. But they dilly-dally when there is overlap with other departments. The Urban Renewal Authority, for example, has to clear many bureaucratic hurdles before the bulldozers can move in.
Red tape is giving builders and buyers the blues. Leung needs to appoint a committee to study and recommend ways to simplify and streamline operations, not just in housing but across the board. Enhancing government efficiency could be his most enduring legacy.
The chief executive wants quick solutions to the housing problems for the middle and lower classes. That being so, he should not be wrong-footed by the hornet's nest over the registration and removal of illegal structures. If you think the revolt over national education has been messy, wait for the organised armed resistance by village house owners. A violent confrontation will scar the administration and derail its remaining agenda.
Tearing down the illegal additions has only downsides: reducing the housing supply and adding untold tonnes of debris to our fast-filling landfills. No one benefits. Leung has inherited this headache from the last two administrations. He should put it on the back burner. Or he can declare a general amnesty with heavy penalties.
Good government is about good timing. Removing illegal structures belongs to the bottom of Leung's to-do list. Unless he wants Hong Kong shamed and his name besmirched.
Philip Yeung is a senior communication manager at a Hong Kong University. firstname.lastname@example.org
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