Public's right of access to land used by private clubs must be upheld
Private institutions that benefit from government subsidies have to accept public scrutiny, and taxpayers are entitled to expect officials to be diligent about it. Lawmakers have rightly drawn attention to the Home Affairs Bureau's dilatory oversight of privileged land leases granted to 27 private recreation clubs decades ago and recently renewed for 15 years. These clubs have paid token or no consideration for the leases. Land revenue foregone amounts to de facto public subsidy.
Public Accounts Committee chairman Abraham Razack has told Legco it is inexcusable that the bureau began a comprehensive review of the private recreational lease policy only in September. The policy should have been reviewed from time to time, if you believe information given to the Executive Council in 1969. The Audit Commission looked into it last year and urged the government to consider taking back private clubhouses and putting the land to better use.
This newspaper put the leases under the spotlight in 2010. Not only were the sites granted on most favourable terms, but the requirement to open some facilities for public use had been ignored. Since then the clubs have been asked to provide greater public access, but there is little evidence of a long-term overhaul of the leases. The original policy was to provide more public sporting facilities and help train elite athletes. But the Audit Commission found that some clubs were allowed to operate non-sports facilities such as a mahjong room, massage, catering and barber shops. This raises questions whether subsidies are deserved.
The committee was told the clubs are sitting on 320 hectares, which is a lot considering a land shortage hinders the city's social and economic development. That is all the more reason not to dismiss the public's right of access as an anachronism of archaic leases.
Hopefully it will not be seen as necessary to revoke one or two leases to show the clubs the government is serious about the review.