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Low priority: Hong Kong government places review of New Territories small house policy at bottom of its agenda

Development Secretary Paul Chan says issue is complex and policy is therefore to delay and let time take its course

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 10:13pm

A review of the small house policy for New Territories villagers will remain at the bottom of the government’s agenda for the foreseeable future as it involves too many interests and complexities, nor will it help ease short to medium-term land supply, says the city’s development chief.

Its preferred approach will be to delay and let “time” take its course, rather than tinker with the contentious colonial-era relic.

“Honestly, this is not something that can be done in three or five years, that’s why it’s been given such low priority.” Paul Chan Mo-po told the Post. “There is no plan to review it this term.”

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Enacted in 1972 as a temporary housing measure, the policy allows male, adult indigenous villagers the right to build a three-storey house within a recognised New Territories village or on agricultural land.

The government has long recognised the need for a review of the policy, which has faced criticism for being prone to abuse and unfair in a land-constrained city.

Eleven villagers were jailed for up to three years in December after they illegally sold their land rights to a developer.

“The problem involves ... indigenous villagers’ rights, their right to build, legal issues, possibly the Basic Law and planning issues. Because it relates to such complicated and huge interests, we believe there will be no consensus.”

While some villagers are open to a review, most oppose any change to what they say is a right protected under Article 40 of the Basic Law.

“Apart from being able to reach a consensus with the government, they don’t even have a consensus among themselves,” Chan stressed, pointing to political schisms in Hong Kong’s rural force, traditionally led by the Heung Yee Kuk – a statutory body representing indigenous interests.

Commentators in the past have proposed ending small-house rights in 2029, when the last villagers able to claim their rights are born. The date is 18 years ­before 2047 – the year that Hong Kong’s existing way of life guaranteed under the Basic Law expires.

Chan would not comment on this, but stressed: “Time is on our side.”

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Ex-lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, who chairs land and housing think tank Land Watch, said the government had long been employing this passive approach “because they can’t find a solution”.

Ending the policy, Lee said, would “probably cause riots in the New Territories”, but without expectations of a policy change, problems such as selling rights for profit would worsen.

“All government can do is tighten enforcement. But this depends on their will to investigate and people voluntarily reporting such abuses,” Lee said.

Chan conceded kuk-government relations had worsened. “I think they must hate me,” he joked. He recently rejected a top kuk leader’s proposal for the government to offer cheap mortgages to villagers to buy land for small houses.

“In the last decade, more than 80 per cent of small house applications involve their own land,” Chan said.

Li Yiu-ban, who chairs the Sai Kung North Rural Committee, agreed relations had “gone cold” but said they could be repaired if the government did more to improve infrastructure in rural areas and help villagers lower the cost of financing and building houses.

Responding to environmental concerns about villagers degrading pockets of private agricultural land in or near ecologically sensitive sites to build homes, protest against government zoning or rid the sites of conservation value, Chan acknowledged there were “blind spots” in planning policies.

He admitted the government was “not satisfied with the situation” and that he was now working with the Environment Bureau to look at how to curb "destroy first, develop later" activities.