Laboured explanations fail to satisfy sceptical critics of Hong Kong Wang Chau housing project
While officials explain the various consultations they held, opponents vow to press on with plans for a formal inquiry into the fiasco
Top officials were at pains on Wednesday to deny succumbing to pressure from rural leaders in scaling down the Wang Chau housing plan, but that failed to impress pan-democrat and localist lawmakers, who are determined to investigate the controversial project after they take office next month.
While ministers insisted the government’s ultimate goal was to build 12,700 public housing units on a brownfield site largely occupied by Yuen Long rural strongmen, they failed to explain when that would be accomplished if the original completion target date of 2026-27 was no longer practical.
Wednesday’s press conference was as highly anticipated as it was unusually high-powered, marking the first time since March 2013 that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah have attended a media briefing together. Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and acting Secretary for Development Eric Ma Siu-cheung were also there, along with other top officials.
The political storm over the Wang Chau project was set off by newly-elected lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick’s campaign to draw public attention to concerns that officials lobbied rural leaders behind closed doors and failed to consult villagers who would have to make way for 4,300 public housing flats.
Cheung revealed, for the first time, details of the Housing Department’s four lobbying sessions with rural leaders and district councillors that were held after Leung chaired a meeting in June 2013 and proposed splitting the Wang Chau development into two phases that would produce 17,000 flats in total.
“On July 16, 2013, the department met Yuen Long district council chairman Leung Che-cheung, councillor Tang Hing-ip, Tsang Shu-wo [and two other rural leaders],” Cheung said. “They opposed the building of 17,000 units, citing various concerns.” Tsang operates a huge car park at the brownfield site in Wang Chau.
In September that year, another session with the five also ended with the rural leaders opposing the project, and proposing that the officials proceed with phase one only.
It was four months later, in January 2014, that the chief executive was told in a meeting with his three top ministers that it would be more practical to proceed with the first phase of 4,300 units first.
“The Transport and Housing Bureau said district representatives strongly opposed the plan, and the bureau also believed it would take time to handle the problem concerning brownfield sites,” Leung recalled. “To avoid delay ... I supported them in moving on with the [first phase].”
Cheung said that in two follow-up meetings in March 2014, housing officials only discussed the first phase with rural leaders and two Democratic Party district councillors, respectively. But he could not find any additional record about the meeting with rural leaders.
Newly-elected lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim found it unacceptable.
“This was the most important [consultation] as the number of flats dropped from 17,000 to 4,000,” he said.
“The press conference is an attempt to shift the focus away from bowing to pressure from the rural strongmen.”
Leung insisted that officials had not succumbed to pressure, as the brownfield problem was also a main consideration in deciding to develop Wang Chau in phases.
“The plan will affect the business and those employed [in the car parks and warehouses] on the brownfield site there ... New policies need to be drawn up to handle them properly,” Leung said.
Yiu and other pan-democrat and localist lawmakers are pushing for a formal Legco inquiry into the housing plan next month, but they will need the votes of at least seven pro-establishment colleagues to make it happen.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun told the Post he had not yet decided whether to support the bid for a Legco probe.
“I haven’t watched the entire press conference and thought through the issues yet,” he said.