Profit should not be overriding motive when it comes to urban renewal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 3:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 8:17am

The tens of thousands of old and new buildings jammed-packed in a small city gives Hong Kong one of the most interesting cityscapes in the world. But behind the facades of many dilapidated blocks live countless households who do not have money to maintain their properties. They have to wait for the Urban Renewal Authority or private developers to step in. Only two years ago were they given the opportunity to initiate their own redevelopment.

The demand-led scheme is considered a better option in that owners can approach the authority when there is two-thirds support among them. The bottom-up approach appears to have been well received, attracting 110 applications so far. Hopes were high that the authority could build on the experience and take on more projects.

Regrettably, the HK$3 billion loss from the eight approved projects has prompted the authority to scale down its commitment. It may accept only larger sites in future, saying the small ones would produce fewer units and are not cost-efficient. It may also expand another programme in which it only acts as a go-between for owners and private developers.

It would not be surprising if residents get the impression that profit is being put before social responsibility. The review raised questions whether the authority adheres to its mission of stressing "people-first" and "public participation".

Financial viability is a valid concern. The authority is required by law to operate in a financially prudent manner. However, despite losses from the demand-led scheme, its books remain healthy, with a surplus of HK$16.2 billion last year. Over the past 13 years, deficits were recorded in two years.

If the authority is committed as it says in addressing the city's acute urban decay problem and improving the living conditions of those in dilapidated areas, it should try harder to help those who come forward. If applicants are turned away just because the project would not make a profit, it is even less likely for private developers to show interest.

Rundown buildings are a reminder that the city is not doing enough on the urban renewal front. While some may say they add to the city's character, they reflect poorly on our standard of living. Decaying blocks are also threats to public safety.

Resources should not become an obstacle to a scheme that has been well received. The authority should seek more public funding to speed up urban renewal if needed.