The economic summit announced by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen yesterday, to explore how Hong Kong should respond to the country's 11th five-year plan, does not sit easily with our city's laissez faire traditions and avoidance of central planning. But as a brain-storming session, the conference can do little harm and might even produce a few good ideas to help Hong Kong face up to its challenges. The summit is primarily a political exercise. It is Mr Tsang's way of telling the central government that Hong Kong's inclusion - for the first time - in the national development blueprint is being taken seriously. Unveiled in March, the plan provides that the mainland will support the development of our finance, shipping, tourism and telecommunications industries and help maintain our status as a financial, trading and shipping centre. Under 'one country, two systems', Hong Kong, unlike other mainland provinces, is not required to formulate its own mini five-year plan. Nor are we bound by the targets Beijing has set for local governments. But Mr Tsang clearly believes there is a need for Hong Kong to be seen responding to the plan. He has couched the issues the economic summit will address in terms of how Hong Kong could benefit from the plan. But this is a euphemistic way of spelling out the external threats Hong Kong faces. Not so long ago, Chief Secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and Monetary Authority chief Joseph Yam Chi-kwong both warned that Hong Kong could be marginalised by the continuing development of the mainland. Hong Kong cannot afford to be complacent. But the issues raised by the chief executive for consideration by the summit are not new. They amount to a need to ensure that our city adapts to changing circumstances, better integrates with the mainland and retains its competitiveness. To do that, Hong Kong needs to tackle a wide range of pressing problems. We do not have to wait for the planned gathering of experts before getting to grips with them. As we climb the value ladder, we are being held back by a workforce whose skills are not sufficiently broad or deep to meet the needs of a service economy. The importation of skilled labour is hampered by a population policy that favours the entry of mainlanders by virtue of family links rather than expertise. With our very low birth rate, we are never going to produce sufficient talent to meet future demand, even if we were to invest a lot more to raise the quality of education. There is a need for Hong Kong to develop an aggressive policy to attract skilled migrants. Our ageing population is putting pressure on both the welfare and health-care budgets. More and more senior citizens are depending on public assistance, as they are not covered by any retirement protection schemes. Our public hospitals are thronging with ever more elderly patients, as well as young ones who have no incentive to use private care because public health care is heavily subsidised. However, our ability to increase social spending is constrained by a narrow tax base. Much of our taxation is property-related, and that makes our public revenue highly susceptible to the economic cycle. In terms of economic wealth, Hong Kong ranks as an affluent country. But our quality of life is weighed down by worsening air pollution and poor town planning. Smoggy weather is posing a health risk to the population. The shoebox-sized flats in which most Hong Kong people live are unbefitting of our position on the wealth league. These are issues that require urgent attention. The summit may or may not prove helpful. What is important is that the government should be mapping out a strategy to address shortfalls in our education, environmental protection, health care, welfare and planning regimes. Last but not least, something also needs to be done to reform our flawed political system, which is not conducive to forging the necessary consensus to resolve these deep-seated problems.