Winning streak of Hong Kong developers must come to an end

The government now has an opportunity to challenge the ‘Profitable Private Partnership’ that will further enrich big firms holding 1,000 hectares of idle land

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 1:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 1:01am

Every time a public body says PPP, I hear Profitable Private Partnership, not Public-Private Partnership. The latest mention is by the Task Force on Land Supply, the government-appointed body tasked with looking for land development options to meet housing demands.

Since the private developers, mostly the big ones, hold an estimated 1,000 hectares of idle farmland in the New Territories, the task force proposes working jointly with them. Presumably that means some variant of building private and public housing on plots owned privately, so that parts of the profit made from the former could be used to cover the latter.

Somehow, whatever PPP arrangement they end up with, I suspect the profit those developers stand to make will be many times the cost of building those public housing units. The PPP will, indeed, be a godsend for the developers, having waited so long to convert farmland into residential sites. Now, the government task force is proposing to do it for them.

Plan to use idle land held by developers could be short-term answer to Hong Kong’s housing problem

Yeah, yeah, I know about the land conversion premiums they are supposed to pay. What, 20 per cent or 30 per cent of what developers eventually sell their private flats for?

For once, the government can afford to take its kid gloves off. Our big property developers are all headed by ageing tycoons on their way out, literally. In any case, they have lost much of the influence and respect of Beijing under Xi Jinping.

I am not talking about communist-style land confiscation and redistribution, but a more equitable application of the liberal-democratic doctrine of “eminent domain”. If villagers and non-indigenous residents such as those in Yuen Long are being evicted for the Wang Chau housing project, surely it is not too unfair to demand big landowners cough up with farmland left idle for years, if not decades.

This has been done in many countries. Impose a prohibitive levy on idle land and/or buy it back. Any repurchase of the land would be priced on its current status for agricultural use. The government would even be justified in paying a premium to sweeten such deals with developers and landowners.

There is an added benefit for the government. If it is willing to take on the big developers, it would then be justified in facing up to green groups in developing those fringes of country parks that have few visitors and are of low ecological value.