Public purse should not be subsidising private clubs
Putting public resources to the best use should be the hallmark of good governance. This is particularly essential for a small city where the demand for more land for housing and social development is ever growing. This mantra is also recognised by chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who has pledged to make the best use of what is available to meet the challenge. However, when it comes to converting underused private recreation clubs for better development, officials appear to be dragging their feet. Even the Audit Commission is running out of patience with the ongoing review and called for a timetable.
The questionable club leases were first put under the spotlight in 2010. Not only were the sites granted for free or at a token price, the requirement to open some facilities for public use was also ignored until the issue was brought up by this paper. Since then the clubs have been required to provide wider public access, pending a long-term overhaul. Some 430 hectares of land is granted to 27 clubs. Regrettably, three years have passed and officials are still sitting on the review.
The original policy was to provide more sporting facilities for the public and help train elite athletes. But as revealed by the Audit Commission, some clubs were allowed to operate non-sports facilities such as a mahjong room, massage, catering and barber shops. This is clearly a departure from the policy objective. Land lease breaches such as unauthorised building works and expansion have also been discovered.
Forgone land premium is de facto public subsidies. The revelation raises serious questions about whether these private facilities deserve subsidies. As the watchdog rightly noted, the chief executive has stressed that social and economic development has been stifled by a land shortage. The relevant authorities should work together to assess whether some of the land leases should be reviewed. It is good that the home affairs chief has pledged to consider whether the land could be released for better use. Hopefully, the Audit Commission report will give the much-needed push to speed up the review.