Overhaul of Hong Kong's divisive small house policy is long overdue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 1:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 8:31am

The so-called small house policy has long been a bone of contention between urbanites and New Territories villagers. Many people consider the policy, a legacy of the colonial era, as inherently unfair and sexist.

It only entitles the male descendants of native villagers to build a three-storey house. Female villagers, however, are not entitled to this right.

Given the open-ended commitment made by the government, a new survey by the think tank Civic Exchange estimates there are up to 91,700 outstanding claimants who will require up to 12 square kilometres of land to meet their demands.

Given our high property prices, the policy has proved to be a bonanza to villagers.

Many of them don't even live in the villages of their ancestors and may build the houses to trade and make a fortune without having any intention to live in one.

And it is anything but a small house. A standard house with three 700 square feet flats is larger than the homes of most Hong Kong people.

No wonder many look on the privilege with envy.

However, in a surprise finding, most people, including those who directly benefit from the policy, believe it is not sustainable. Some 80 per cent think an overhaul is needed, according to the Civic Exchange survey.

Given the high level of public support for reform, the government must show the will and leadership to overhaul a misguided policy that has distorted town planning and land supply in the New Territories.

A number of realistic plans - some from the Civic Exchange, others from independent scholars - come to mind:

  • Impose conditions on the resale of small houses.
  • Require proof of continuous residency in Hong Kong to qualify under the policy.
  • Cap the amount of land made available to build small houses.
  • Once the cap, say 12 square kilometres, has been reached, villagers will be compensated monetarily at market-equivalent rates, but can no longer expect to receive a plot of land.

It's unlikely all of these recommendations are acceptable to everyone, and some may need to be modified. But it's high time to start a serious debate and address this problem that has plagued the city for so long.