Time to scrap outdated policy on village housing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 12:00am

TIME TO TALK of big numbers about small places, of outdated land policies that threaten to create enormous rural blight and of private demands for public money to which our government should now respond with a firm 'no'.

If you like going on walks in the New Territories as I do (when will we finally get that sunny, dry and cool December weather?), you will know a New Territories village has a distinct look.

At the edge of abandoned fields now grazed by abandoned cattle (no cow has a better life than these do), you find a higgledy-piggledy collection of cramped three-storey residential buildings in a style once referred to as 'Spanish villa'. They are finished in shiny bathroom tiles, heavily tinted windows and enough chrome or other garish curlicues to put a final definition to the term 'nouveau riche'.

In among them you may find some of the original village housing but it is usually deserted and crumbling, waiting for redevelopment into yet more cheaply built three-storey blocks that can at a pinch serve as housing for six families each and on Cheung Chau do.

On Cheung Chau the inhabitants are still predominantly Chinese. Elsewhere in the New Territories you can be surprised at how much these places have become expatriate ghettoes.

This was certainly not the intention. The idea, formalised in a policy adopted in 1972, was that every indigenous male villager over 18 should have his traditional right in his village to build a home for himself of up to 2,100 square feet of gross floor area.

Almost all of these people have long left their villages. Most of them now live abroad. But they still retain that right, the 'ding', and when they return to their villages for a visit, they can readily find people to buy their 'ding' from them, and then build that home and rent it out if they can. There is no big strain on them if they cannot immediately find takers. There are no land costs and this is cheaply built housing.

But while you may regret that charming villages beautifully nestled into their landscapes through fung shui practices have been turned into an unplanned rural blight now spreading well past village boundaries, you comfort yourself that there has to be a limit to this soon.

Think again. The Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, on Monday revealed there were still more than 240,000 people eligible for this building right and I would be careful about referring to them as 'villagers' as he did. Only a handful still live in their villages. The rest will never go back.

Now do some arithmetic. Take 240,000 times 2,100 sq ft and you get 504 million sq ft of entitled floor space.

Put this into perspective. Last year private developers completed only 10.4 million sq ft of domestic floor area in the SAR. Add in the public sector and you come to 22 million sq ft. At a rough guess, the total housing stock of Hong Kong is not much more than 800 million sq ft.

Something has gone awry here. We have created an enormous glut of potential housing subject to almost no regulation or planning with respect to location, layout, services, transport or initiatives on maintaining green space.

Not only is this silly in itself but we face a massive bill to provide the services and roadways for all this remote housing. The entitled 'villagers' have been given this privilege and we must pay up. The recent fracas about construction of a water line for a few people in Sai Kung is an example of it.

And what are we doing about it? Well, the policy is under review and Mr Suen says he will resolve the problem within five years.

I am not a believer. Every government official who has looked at it so far has been scared right off. It would mean taking on the Heung Yee Kuk and there are some things officialdom will simply not do. The village housing policy has always been a taboo. I would like to see evidence that things have really changed but this will take more than a five-year hope from Mr Suen.

And the Heung Yee Kuk in fact wants more. It wants height and size restrictions on the buildings lifted and permission given for joint applications.

Get ready for it. Instead of three-storey buildings restricted to 2,100 sq ft, we will get 40-storey tower blocks densely scattered everywhere in country parks if this prehistoric lobby gets its way and it usually does.

There can be only one solution. It has to stop. There is no way we can satisfy all of these 240,000 eligible people and we might as well draw the line now as later with a firm 'no more, tough luck for you'.

But what we need for this is resolute public officials. What we have, unfortunately, is the Tung administration.