Jake's View

Official overestimates of Hong Kong’s future population are deliberate and will prove costly

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 7:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 10:52pm

The 8.22 million population by 2043 is only one scenario in the government’s official projections; the high growth scenario projects a population of 9.01 million by 2046 and 9.11 million by 2064. “Hong Kong 2030 plus” must be robust enough to cater for uncertainties and changes.

Raymond Lee, Director of planning

Letters to the Editor , December 29

Let’s accept immediately that making multi-year population forecasts is mostly guesswork. It pretends to hard statistical analysis but its flaw lies in assumptions that are just crystal ball gazing.

If our statisticians mostly get it wrong, however, you would think they would as often get it wrong by making forecasts that are too low as too high.

Not so. The record shows that they always guess too high, sometimes astoundingly so. The first chart tells you the story. The latest guess is the lower red line. It says our population will peak at 8.2 million in 2043 and then actually go down.

Above that red line you get some earlier official forecasts. It’s always the same. Time and time again, the numbers must be revised down.

My favourite is on the left of the chart, a guess made in an update from a 1999 transport planning study, CTS3. It said that last year we would have a population of 8.9 million people. The actual figure was 7.3 million. And this was labelled as the moderate guess. The high growth scenario said 10.1 million.

It is my contention that these consistent overestimates are no accident. Our government is plagued by a concrete-pouring mania, and the bedrock of infrastructure planning is population forecasting. Get the numbers up and you can justify more rail, road, bridge and tunnel projects.

And, yes, I do accuse our Census and Statistics Department of giving in too easily to the engineers and the contractors who have ensconced themselves in power through functional constituencies. You see the evidence.

Get the numbers up and you can justify more rail, road, bridge and tunnel projects

But the planning department should not make the assumption that they must plan for the high growth scenario so that there is no shortfall of housing and infrastructure.

Too high is easily as bad as too low in these matters. Too high means condemning another generation to shoebox flats on the assumption of continued crowding when lower growth would allow more spacious flats.

Similarly it means the unnecessary sacrifice of green land to what will prove to be underused transport projects, and the sacrifice of fiscal savings that could be put to more useful social purposes.

Robust is wrong, sir. What we need is Goldilocks planning - not too high, not too low, but just right.

The odd thing is that our government actually has more control of population numbers than most jurisdictions do. As the second chart shows, all indications are that within ten years natural increase (births over deaths) will go strongly negative.

Population growth will then only be sustained by “net movements”, which basically means immigration from the mainland, now running at about 45,000 people a year.

Pass the word to Beijing that this must be restrained and we can start planning for bigger flats tomorrow. But would Hong Kong’s planners sign on or are they sold to the contractors?