The government has not been specific on how much land is needed for the 470,000 flats it says must be built over the next decade to handle Hong Kong's anticipated growth. What it is certain about, though, is that there is not enough land in reserves and ways have to be found to obtain more. But any trip through the New Territories shows there is plenty of space for future development, so the matter is less one of supply than management. Reviewing the small-house policy is a crucial facet of formulating a planning strategy.
Authorities well know this, yet have been reluctant to broach what is a complicated matter. The 41-year-old administrative measure gives men of at least 18 years old who can trace their ancestors to villages at the time of the British occupation of the New Territories in 1898 the right to apply to build a three-storey house of up to 2,100 sq ft. The land is free if it is in an ancestral village, or can be bought from government reserves elsewhere for about two-thirds of the market value. Problems abound with the scheme, the most pressing being that it is unsustainable. There is not enough land to meet demand.
That could explain government tardiness in processing the more than 10,000 outstanding applications. Or it could be because the policy is viewed by some as discriminatory to city residents; a violation of sexual discrimination laws protecting the rights of women; or little more than a windfall property deal. Nor does the reasoning for its introduction, a temporary measure to address a housing shortage for indigenous villagers, still apply. At a time when Hong Kong needs to plan for future development by improving its public and private housing stock, persisting with an outdated approach that does not make the best use of land makes no sense.
Pledges by authorities since 1995 to review the policy have been left hanging. The latest reiterations by Leung Chun-ying while campaigning to be chief executive - and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor shortly before she became chief secretary - have yet to be followed up. Lau Wong-fat, chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk, the statutory advisory body representing indigenous villagers, recently made that plain. His interests are his constituents, but by raising the matter he has reinvigorated debate. The Leung administration should heed his call. There could be opposition, legalities and cultural and social challenges, but if Hong Kong is to grow and prosper, there also has to be the political will to move the discussion forward.