Hong Kong's housing policy needs vigorous debate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 3:39am

Housing and land supply are arguably Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's toughest challenge. Ever since he made adequate affordable homes the centrepiece of his government, expectations and scepticism have abounded. Not only are his annual flat production targets repeatedly questioned, how they can be achieved is also in doubt.

The pressure for Leung to deliver is renewed by the long-term housing targets laid down by a government advisory panel, which says 470,000 new flats are needed in the next 10 years. It means an annual 47,000 units have to be built, which is more ambitious than Leung's short- and medium-term goal.

But the new target was also criticised by some as conservative, given there are 230,000 applicants for public housing. There are also concerns that public housing may become too dominant under the proposed 60-40 ratio for public and private flats. The panel raised various options for public consultation, such as shortening the waiting time for non-elderly single people and a subdivided flats licensing system. These deserve vigorous debate in the community.

More importantly, the advisory panel did not address a key question - where does the land come from? Housing chief Anthony Cheung Bing-leung admitted that members did not consider land supply issues and the target was a challenge. In a bid to test public response, development minister Paul Chan Mo-po said there were suggestions that part of the city's 44,239 hectares of protected country park could be released for housing. With 40 per cent of the city's area locked up by law for conservation, officials may think a little sacrifice does no harm. But whether the public finds that acceptable is another matter.

There is no reason why we cannot broach the issue. Given the land shortage, the idea should not remain taboo for discussion. Along with other land supply options, they are matters for the people to decide. For instance, the much criticised small-house policy, under which male indigenous villagers in the New Territories may apply to build a village house on land they own, should be reviewed. It was suggested that there would be enough flats for 300,000 by releasing one-tenth of the 1,000 hectares set aside for village development.

The shortage of land and the need to develop means people will have to make some difficult choices. An early debate on their pros and cons is a good way to foster public consensus on how best to meet our housing needs.