More than 1,000 caretakers and managers serving the 670,000 families in public housing estates are to be dumped in an overhaul to cut costs and contain staff growth. The mass lay-offs seek to get rid of 7.3 per cent of the Housing Department's workforce within five years. The department has adopted a 'zero-growth' policy this year and officials want to trim staff numbers from this year's 15,100 to 14,000 in 2002-03. The first 100 staff, mostly estate caretakers and managers, will have to go by next March. A further 400 will be dumped in the following year. To streamline bureaucracy, Housing Authority chairwoman Rosanna Wong Yick-ming has pushed a scheme to surrender estate management to private firms - a move estimated to cut costs by 25 per cent and staff in estate management by 80 per cent. Almost half of the department's staff are responsible for managing government estates. Staff salaries accounted for about $2.6 billion in 1994-95 and the figure grew to $3.4 billion in 1996-97, according to the authority's annual reports. The department says lay-offs are 'natural' because of the privatisation plan and completion of more squatter clearance projects. Most jobs will be cut through natural wastage, while the remainder will be replaced with contract staff. Senior officials have tried hard to keep the plan out of the media spotlight for fear it may be turned into a high-profile political saga, especially as they try to push through the so-called 'corporatisation reform' next year. Staff have expressed worries despite repeated promises there will be 'full consultation'. A department source said: 'In the process of cutting red tape, some of the staff workers will unavoidably be affected. But we do not want the department to become a white elephant.' Calls for management reform arose three years ago after some officers were found to have filed false claims for overtime or had gone to Shenzhen while on duty. Society for Community Organisations director Ho Hei-wah, while supporting the lay-offs in principle, warned of poorer management by private firms. 'The contractor, in order to make more money, would keep staff wages very low and the result is that quality staff cannot be attracted to serve the tenants.' The 150,000 households on the public housing waiting list could be given loans or mortgage subsidies to buy Housing Authority apartments in a new attempt to boost home ownership. A poll on their intention to buy homes will be conducted.