Sharing community services a tricky business in crowded Hong Kong

Figuring out how to share the community services pie among districts is tricky in a city where the rich and poor live so close together

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 5:49am

Like many of their well-off neighbours on The Peak, private surgeon and lawmaker Dr Kwok Ka-ki and his family of five share a spacious 2,000 sq ft flat. This means there is 400 square feet of space for each family member.

Living lower down the slopes of Victoria Peak, May, a housewife and the other four members of her family find themselves in rather different circumstances. They share a 400 sq ft flat in Sai Ying Pun with another family.

On the face of it the two families have little in common. Yet for the purposes of government research, they are considered much the same. They, along with almost 90,000 other households, live in Central and Western district, one of the 18 district council areas in the city.

The statistics determine how government resources are distributed to build much-needed social and welfare facilities - and there are growing calls for that to change.

May, a mother-of-two, says her flat is so tiny that her 90-year-old father-in-law has to sleep in the living room while May, her husband and their teenage children share a bedroom.

"My 14-year-old son is sleeping on the top of the bunk bed while me and my 15-year-old daughter share the lower bunk. My husband sleeps on the floor," May says.

Kwok is equally uncomfortable when talking about his more spacious surroundings.

"Please don't describe us as an affluent family. I am just one of the middle-class households in Hong Kong," the surgeon says.

Kwok, a former member of the Central and Western District Council, is among those who say that using the district council areas as the basis for demographic classification is misleading and leads to an ineffective distribution of resources. He says it means unnecessary facilities are built in affluent areas, siphoning resources from impoverished zones.

"It is very normal and common for each district council to fight for an equal share of government resources for its residents before deciding what to build in their district," Kwok says. "On the other hand, the government tries to distribute resources evenly to avoid social conflicts.

"But is it distributing resources without clearly pinning down the genuine needs of each of the small communities?"

One of the latest examples of a mismatch is the severe underuse of Youth Square in Chai Wan since it opened in 2009.

The 40,000-square-metre centre, built and operated by the Home Affairs Bureau, lost HK$76 million during its first two years of operation.

The usage rate for facilities such as the video-shooting studio, exhibition area and band room was less than 10 per cent. Shops and conference rooms were least popular, with a usage rate of 0 to 5 per cent. Y-Loft, a 148-room youth hostel in the complex, had a usage rate of 18 to 34 per cent - less than the initial target of 40 per cent, according to an Audit Commission report.

Although the centre was meant to promote youth development, only half of the 2,130 activities held were targeted at young people. The rest ranged from health consultations for the elderly to talks on Buddhism.

The report said Youth Square's inconvenient location made it less attractive to teenagers, especially those who lived in the New Territories.

The problem of identifying the specific needs of residents also became apparent to Professor Gabriel Leung, head of the school of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, when his team conducted a scientific city-wide household study of public health.

"Central and Western District is such a huge area that ranges from families living in luxurious houses in Barker Road to those sharing a tiny dilapidated flat in Sai Ying Pun," says Leung, who previously served the government as right-hand-man to former health chief Dr York Chow Yat-ngok and as head of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's office.

The same problem is apparent in New Territories West, the area Kwok represents in Legco. The six districts there cover both ends of the spectrum, from the well-off living on the Gold Coast to grass-roots families in public housing estates in Tuen Mun.

That makes it misleading to categorise residents simply on the basis of which of the 18 districts they live in, Kwok says.

The Home Affairs Department says funds are allocated to the 18 districts for minor district works and to organise community activities. It claims it takes into account several factors, including district needs, population, socio-economic factors, land area and the past pattern of how funds were used.

"Funds are allocated to different programmes having regard to the relevant needs and considerations," it says, while providing few details on how it decides on resource allocation.

But Leung and his team expanded the use of a non-conventional approach when conducting the most recent household survey of 21,000 families to assess the mental and physical health, as well as family harmony, of Hongkongers.

Instead of dividing the families into 18 mega districts, the research team has adopted a system called tertiary planning units (TPU). These are demarcated using a geographic reference system by the Planning Department.

In other words, the city is geographically divided in a more defined way, based on population and other social aspects of each small community.

For instance, the affluent Cyberport development is separated from nearby Wah Fu, which is filled with public housing estates, despite the fact they are close to each other in Pok Fu Lam. Both are part of Southern district, home to 275,000 spread across 38.8 square kilometres.

Based on the new approach, the HKU team has split the city into more than 300 district units.

"We find more new migrant families in Tin Shui Wai and their needs are completely different from the grass-roots local families living in Fanling or Yuen Long, even though both groups equally need the extra social support and facilities," Leung says.

"The new immigrants lack even the most basic skills, things as simple as where to do grocery shopping or take public transport, while the locals need other types of social support."

Rapid urban renewal is also having an impact and drastically widening the wealth gap, with new residential complexes where flats sell for millions of dollars going up alongside run-down buildings inhabited by grass-roots families in areas such as Wan Chai.

Leung also says the government should change the way it conducts household surveys to keep pace with social changes. Normally, the government groups all family members living in the same flat as one family unit. But this may not reflect the special living environment of Hong Kong as more people stay single and move out of the family home to live alone.

"We should no longer treat a family based only on whether the members are living under the same roof," Leung says. "In our survey we group the family members who no longer live together as one family as long as they still regard those not living with them as their family members."

Kwok supports Leung's new research approaches, describing them as more scientific and a closer reflection of the actual circumstances of the city.

"Fairness does not mean each district gets an almost equal share of public resources," Kwok says. "For instance, affluent families already have their private swimming pools and playgrounds in their residential complexes, so building those facilities would be redundant.

"Should the government be less bureaucratic and more cautious about the needs of residents in different communities to ensure public resources meet their needs and it doesn't build white elephants?"