There is something about the subject of small houses that drives otherwise sane people into a form of madness. The Heung Yee Kuk claims there is a legal entitlement for certain New Territories villagers (those descended through the male line from a resident of a pre-1898 recognised village) to build a small house, and that this right is protected by the Basic Law.
In fact, while there is some evidence of a traditional practice, there is no legal entitlement, and the Basic Law makes no mention of small houses, contenting itself with a bland promise to respect 'lawful traditional rights'.
The kuk regularly complains about slow processing of building applications by the Lands Department. Yet, if the present output of about 1,000 cases a year were doubled (which is extremely unlikely) it would take 100 years to deal with all those villagers already 'eligible' (240,000 as estimated by the kuk), and 200 years if the benefit were extended to women, which under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance it should have been.
Dealing with these cases, plus the hundreds of thousands of others that would arise in the interim, would require all the land in the New Territories and large areas of Guangdong province. In other words, the policy as interpreted by some is simply incapable of implementation.
That alone is sufficient reason to take a step back and look at the origins of the policy, what it was trying to achieve, and how in practical ways we should now be seeking to achieve those objectives.
The small-house policy was devised in 1972 when there was little or no public housing in the New Territories. The idea was that residents of rural areas who wanted to stay in their villages, perhaps because they farmed nearby land, should be allowed to improve their situation by building a small house within the village environs on land they owned, or on government land which would be sold to them for the purpose. In other words, this was a matter of housing policy.
The situation has changed radically. There is hardly any farming and the existing stock of small houses (some 28,000) is more than sufficient to cope with genuine demand. Most new small-house approvals are sold on by the recipients to developers, who amalgamate them and build high-class, Spanish-villa-type estates for letting or selling to wealthy folk. Moreover, the Housing Authority has built thousands of public housing flats in the New Territories. In other words, everyone concerned can now be decently and adequately housed.
From time to time, people express a wish to 'draw a line' under the policy. But killing it off in a showdown would undoubtedly provoke a confrontation.
So maybe it would be better to tackle it indirectly by setting some reasonable terms and conditions.
Many villages suffer from inadequate access and lack of basic infrastructure. Starting from the position that this is essentially a housing policy matter, what should we do? The answer is to freeze the size of all villages within their existing boundaries and then prepare proper layout plans with statutory force. The plans should make adequate arrangements for emergency vehicular access, sewerage, mains water and so on, with adequate space between the properties for ventilation and light.
The immediate consequence of introducing such a package would be a delay of several years while statutory layout plans were prepared and the necessary infrastructure provided. When, in theory, small-house grants could resume, it is likely only a trickle of approvals would be possible because there simply would not be room for much additional housing.
The kuk might well claim that such measures constituted a de facto death of the policy, and press for compensation. But recent reports quoted Development Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as saying it would be difficult to justify to urban residents why compensation should be paid to villagers for the loss of what the former perceive to be an unjustified bonanza. This is a masterly understatement. For 'difficult' read 'impossible'.
Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. firstname.lastname@example.org