Wang Chau housing saga

Minister warns 7,000 Hong Kong construction projects could be halted if legislators fail to pass funding

Government asks Legco to approve HK$12.4 billion funding package for more than 9,400 public works projects, but lawmakers call for greater scrutiny of 26 controversial items including Wang Chau housing plan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 6:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 11:56pm

Hong Kong’s newly appointed development minister has warned that more than 7,000 public construction projects could be suspended if lawmakers refuse to approve a HK$12.4 billion funding package by April 1.

Secretary for Development Eric Ma Siu-cheung was speaking hours after pan-democrat lawmakers locked horns with the government at a Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday over the bundling of 26 controversial projects in with a package of more than 9,400 public works items in the Capital Works Reserve Fund.

The 26 projects, involving about HK$190 million, include a controversial housing plan for Wang Chau in Yuen Long and a much-criticised Lantau tourism development project, as well as contentious plans for new towns in the northeastern New Territories.

Pan-democrats rejected Ma’s warning and called for a review of the long-standing practice of allowing the government to seek funding en bloc once every year. The practice gives the government the authority to approve small expenditures not exceeding HK$30 million per item without approval from Legco for each individual project.

“The practice was introduced in 1982 when the British colonial governor chaired a Legislative Council of appointees,” independent lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said. “But nowadays this directly elected legislature cannot allow the government to have all the powers.”

Legco’s public works subcommittee resumed debate on the package on Wednesday after failing to vote on it during a two-hour session on February 3. But lawmakers failed again to vote on Wednesday after spending two hours debating a motion to adjourn the meeting.

Lawmakers lock horns over 26 public works items ... while HK$12.4 billion funding vote stalls

The subcommittee’s chairman, Lo Wai-kwok, urged lawmakers to be “pragmatic” at the next meeting on Saturday, which will last eight hours.

“The subcommittee’s progress has been extremely slow … and debates cannot continue endlessly,” he said.

The items in the package include small projects for maintenance work on slopes, schools and roads, as well as some preliminary studies for large projects including a HK$50 million musical fountain project in Kwun Tong.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Legco meeting, Ma said: “Those projects include more than 1,000 new items and 7,000 items that have already been started. If we cannot get the funding before April 1, the government could be forced to go against the relevant contracts or delay payments. This would have a big impact on contractors, especially their cash flow, and would affect their livelihoods … and the payrolls of their staff as well.

“Some contractors have already said they might refuse to carry out some work instructions starting from mid-March.”

Ma also warned that if slope maintenance projects were stopped because of a lack of funds, it could pose safety hazards to the public.

Dismissing suggestions that lawmakers should be allowed to scrutinise controversial items individually, Ma said: “There are more than 40 other funding requests in the subcommittee’s backlog, involving HK$90 billion … You can understand the effect of adding more items to the queue.”

But Demosisto lawmaker Nathan Law Kwun-chung was not persuaded by Ma’s remarks.

“We are not necessarily opposing the items that we want to scrutinise separately,” Law said. “It would help us monitor the government by doing so … and by requesting more information from officials.”