When it comes to the small house policy, New Territories villagers and their representative body, the Heung Yee Kuk, cannot be reasoned with. Excessive indulgence and tolerance by successive administrations from the colonial era to the current government have made it all but impossible for officials to negotiate with the kuk. Since the handover, villagers have come to regard the right of an indigenous male descendant to build a three-storey house on a plot of land provided by the government as absolute.
But as scholars and former officials have pointed out in a recent Post report, this is not the case under the Basic Law. The policy was originally designed to help villagers meet housing needs. It is therefore not an unconditional right, but a conditional offer. And, clearly, it is not an age-old custom whose status would be protected under the Basic Law, but a recent policy dating back to the 1960s. This means it can be amended or cancelled when conditions change.
But why would any villagers listen to reason? Under this policy, every male villager is effectively made a millionaire the day he is born, thanks to the city's sky-high property prices. Some of these so-called villagers do not even live in their villages, as many have moved to urban areas or overseas. Yet they continue to abuse this privilege, with many trading their building rights, effectively engaging in and promoting property speculation. The way many villagers have ignored the government's crackdown on illegal structures, with kuk encouragement, let alone compromising on small house policy, shows the extent to which they hold the government in contempt.
So what is to be done? Rural land is rapidly running out, with just one-third left of the 4,960 hectares originally assigned for small houses. Once it runs out, the government must declare an end to the policy. The villagers will, no doubt, demand extra land. Reasonable financial compensation may be unavoidable, but the government must resist granting more land that belongs to the public, not villagers. It must seize this opportunity to resolve a long-standing issue that has cost the city so much for so long.