• Fri
  • Jul 25, 2014
  • Updated: 8:26am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 1:22am

Troubled Leung government's land policy on shaky ground

Philip Bowring says C.Y. Leung's bad appointments and shattered credibility will make land-use proposals harder to pass, but tough and unpopular decisions will have to be taken


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

Land is the root of all evil - at least in Hong Kong. It had been hoped by many, myself included, that with his background in the property market as a surveyor, C.Y. Leung would be able to bring some coherence to land policy. Instead he brought into his government a clutch of individuals now known for property price boosterism and New Territories land speculation.

Three officials - Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, Franklin Lam Fan-keung and Henry Ho Kin-chung - have now departed under clouds which cast serious doubt on Leung's judgment in appointing them in the first place. A fourth, the most important, Paul Chan Mo-po, hangs on despite overwhelming evidence of his lack of judgment. Impropriety and illegality are not the same. Chan's refusal to quit is having a negative impact on the administration and showing Leung to be incapable of leading. He should have sacked Chan immediately. Instead, he treats him like a protected species. Is he a member of the Party, or the Freemasons?

The damage to the government is immense because decisions about land are needed for the benefit of the community at large and must be explained coherently. Above all, the public must believe that decisions are being made in their interest, not those of vested interests, be they the Heung Yee Kuk, individuals in government, big developers or voters in districts.

Leung's appointments record and absence of leadership will make land-use decisions harder than ever to push through either the Legislative Council or broader opinion. Leung has even managed to offend the property tycoons for the wrong reason - the taxes on non-resident purchases, which treat a symptom, not a cause. His focus on more public housing, rather than making cheaper private housing cheaper, also increases the social divide and creates greater dependence.

Clearly Hong Kong needs more housing - though not as much as bloated population projections imply. Some land needs to be converted to residential use. So start with making more efficient use of what is already developed, or at least no longer rural.

The most obvious case in point is the unsightly semi-urban sprawl in the New Territories, which is a very inefficient use of land and is largely the product of the grip the kuk has on the administration, blocking reform of the village house policy and encouraging both New Territories bigwigs, such as by Lau Wong-fat with his land parcels, and others, such as Chan and his family, to speculate on land-use prospects.

There are lesser issues, too, like conversion of old factories in residential areas. Of course there are infrastructure and transport issues to consider, but the main stumbling blocks are the government's reluctance either to take on vested interests or to see land prices fall.

Some sacred cows are going to have to be sacrificed. It is now largely forgotten that in 1975 even cricket-playing colonial officials booted the Hong Kong Cricket Club out of what is now Chater Garden and moved it to Wong Nai Chung Gap. The Hong Kong Golf Club simply cannot hang on to all that land in Fanling with infrastructure on its doorstep. Let it keep the main course and club facilities and maybe also a nine-hole one and offer alternative courses. There may be a possibility of more courses on Kau Sai Chau, where there are now three public ones, or other locations.

Golf is the most land-intensive of all sports. Here, the community is woefully lacking in sports facilities. So what that Singapore has more golf courses? Singapore cannot begin to compare with Hong Kong's wonderful swimming, sailing, windsurfing, diving, hiking, canoeing, hang-gliding opportunities and so on. We should play to our strengths, especially when there are so many golf courses just across the border.

The Nimby attitudes are not just with the golfing elite but evident on other key issues such as incineration. The effort to push through a giant incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau is simply a response to local opposition to the Tuen Mun location. But better still would be if Hong Kong followed the example of other cities and had tough recycling laws and several smaller incinerators.

Tokyo has had a compulsory recycling system since 1964, limiting the amount of incineration and sharing the burden - there are 23 in Tokyo, almost one for each ward. Singapore has five. As it is, officials here refuse to discuss options, including the advanced plasma systems which have very low emissions, or the Green Island Cement proposal offering an alternative to incineration. The public naturally suspects pecuniary interests, not the public interest, are again at play.

A government too indecisive to introduce a waste separation and charging system is also bound to face protests against expanding a stinking landfill near a residential area. Now we are told more consultations are need so we can have a consensus on waste charging! What nonsense. It simply shows that officials either lack an effective plan, or lack the confidence that they can sell it to the public and legislature.

For that they must blame themselves and their supposed leader. Burden-sharing is the answer to Nimbyism. What is striking is how little progress Hong Kong has made in these areas since Leung came to office. The bottom line is that the government knows it is not trusted.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

To jve:
If WE don’t rant, how would the policy makers know what sufferings common folks face daily? It’s time to appreciate what Singaporean government recently has done – cut pay for its officials. It will attract those who are aspired to serve people and not those just looking for an iron bowl for rice. With the ICAC, Hong Kong should have stopped long time ago being held ransom thinking with high pay for civil servants including judges it would wipe out corruption on the job. The current system is a waste – it is wearing a belt and a suspender at the same time. Hong Kong should have evolved sufficiently from law and order at least with ICAC. US President is only paid one fourth what our CE gets? And what a waste on paying for a FS?
”Land is the root of all evil”?
Nothing good can be expected from such a defeatist premise
How about
land is our most precious asset?
then discuss
how we may optimize value for the whole city
This is just another example of pb’s style, or purpose
I shouldn’t be so unkind as to refer to his other examples
What does pb know about political appointments?
For 101, he should check out FDR and JPK Sr
Indecisive government is a result of vociferous troublemakers
those overtaken by defeatism, jealousy, bigotry, self-delusive pauperism
those unwillingness to do constructive work, unable to find proper entertainment, …
and of foreign agents and their local assets
whose sole purpose is to damn it if you do and damn it if you don’t
SAR government should decisively
enact BL Art 23
the earlier the better
@"The bottom line is that the government knows it is not trusted."
But neither are the side that lost the last C.E. election or the loudly promoted alternative of having banana- throwing, flag-burning and mis-fit "democrats" governing us.
So where does Hong Kong from here?
That controversial naval ship berth opposite Tamar's PLA headquarters may not be such a unwelcome idea after all!
Excellent points on land use in this article, but thoughtful members of the community have been shouting themselves ho**** making the same points over the years. The bottom line is nothing is going to change until genuine political reform happens.
Indeed CY Leung is an insider when comes to property business in Hong Kong. In fact he also helped mainland China for many years to model after Hong Kong's land-lease for property development. I will give the benefit of doubt that he is the best person to fix Hong Kong’s dependency on property development. Someone who ties the bell around our neck is the best who knows how to untie it as the Chinese saying goes. So in one go we see all the troubles in his administration more or less all connected with property may allow us to focus on the expert who must make correction.
You make a good point. However, over one year of the Leung administration is behind us, and we have seen precious little expertise or decisive action from it. A few cooling measures were strengthened, land and public housing supply promises made, none of which we will see materialise before at least 3~4 years into the future. Worst, Leung has so far mostly stayed the course of the previous administration, even in spirit. Nothing should be done hastily, but I am beginning to loose all hope of some much needed leadership, longer term vision and concrete policies that will improve life for the people of HK, for many of whom housing remains the single biggest issue.

Where is the new direction many were hoping for after the Tsang years? Where is the real substantive and immediate increase in land supply? Where is the property capital gains tax that could really drive speculators out of the market? Where is the tax on empty plots (to discourage developer land bank hoarding and break their control over the timing of new property supply)? Where is the large scale program to revitalise old urban areas, including allowing and encouraging conversion of industrial buildings into residential ones? Why on earth has the FS been waiving property rates budget after budget if we are trying to cool the property market?

Why can't CY put somebody with some actual competence and credibility in charge of all of the above? Why does everything get stuck in endless consultations? Etc. Sigh.
Less than a year ago I asked the public to focus on property developers. Unfortunately, we must extend our focus to include the Chief Executive, CY Leung. The interaction between the two forces is unbalanced. The former operates out of public’s eye while the latter more or less in full of public’s view. I still believe we mustn’t lose sight of our property developers. I urge the silent majority to speak up and hopefully Hong Kong can be better for you too.
Sorry, but are you saying the public should take on the property developers directly? I thought the whole point of having a government was that it regulates and corrects markets when and where necessary? The property developers are part of the problem, no doubt. But it remains the government tasks to do something about that.
What a good idea. There is no law against doing so. It will be most effective adding support to government's correction.
And look, housing is The Big One, but I have yet to see a single original or even just decisive policy originate from the Leung administration in other areas as well.

Education? Zero progress, except if you want to count ending the ESF government support as progress.

Poverty, especially low-income elderly? Ok, a little bit more 'fruit money,' but that is really no more than a band aid on a gaping wound. Where is the universal pension scheme that any other civilised place has? Where is the radical reform of that sorry excuse of a savings account, the MPF?

Health care? Silence on all fronts.

What will be done about the nearly 50 million (and more....) mostly mainland tourists visiting Hong Kong every year? We are a city of 7 million. 49 million is more than 3 times the number the next top tourist destination, Paris, receives. How is this sustainable? How it is even just acceptable, given what it does to everything from infrastructure crowding (come and ride the KCR with me on Sunday afternoon if you like) to the retail landscape (Dior! LV! Chow Tai Fook!)?

Why is the government unable to even tackle a simple bread-and-butter city hall issue like waste policy?

And so on... the only area it has made a little progress is perhaps pollution measures. But there too, the idling engines law is not being enforced AT ALL, and most of the rest of that package is spread out over a decade.

Sorry for ranting, but this government is a disappointment so far.




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