Public consultation on land supply is doomed to fail, just like the ones before it

Stephen Vines says that public consultations serve to delay action that needs to be taken, and in the case of land and housing issues, that action should be to take on powerful vested interests, including the golf club in Fanling

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 4:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 11:06pm

Alongside death and taxation, one of the few certainties in life is that Hong Kong government consultation exercises always end in failure. Failure, that is, in satisfying the public over their outcome. This is why the current fandango, designed to seek public views on making land available for housing, has no chance of succeeding

Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, the chairman of the task force supervising this exercise, says he wants to hear from the 80 per cent of the people who are not directly affected by the proposals contained in his 76-page consultation document.

This gives us the first big hint of where the problem lies because the matters of land, housing and property development are inextricably linked, affecting literally everyone from the most humble caged room-dweller to the public housing tenant, to those fortunate enough to own their homes, and to, of course, the big property developers. There are no bystanders; everyone has some kind of vested interest and, inevitably, these interests differ. 

This brings us to the second problem, which is Wong’s insistence that the powerful tycoons, who have never been known to meekly occupy the back seats in the room, will get no preference in the consideration of their views.

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Maybe these powerful individuals will not sway Wong and his colleagues but their mandate is to recommend; government officials will make the decisions and they have been known to bow to the interests of the big tycoons who have considerable property interests. 

And so we come to the nub of the matter, which is that the government has, yet again, used the device of a public consultation exercise to delay taking action and to defuse responsibility for prolonging delay, on the grounds that “public opinion is divided”. 

In case anyone suspects an element of hyperbole here, consider the outcome of more or less every other public consultation exercise that has either concluded that opinion is too divided or that the public is ready to endorse whatever the government wanted to do in the first place. 

A good starting point for this consideration would be the public consultation exercise on land use held just five years ago. On that occasion, just six options were offered for consultation. What has happened since? These options are back again in the new consultation exercise but nothing else has been done. 

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Perhaps the accusation of nothing being done is too sweeping because what happens in practice is that, slowly but surely, decisions will be made favouring the tycoons who, for example, are sitting on farmland bought cheaply but with the potential to provide a cash bonanza if permission is granted for property development. 

Just three companies collectively own some 1,000 hectares of farmland. And, as night follows day, a way will be found for them to realise some very impressive profits on these holdings – but it will be done gradually, in the absence of any big policy announcement. 

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This is the reality of how Hong Kong works, and it is tempered by some hard-headed realism. A classic example of this is what happened when the public housing programme was introduced. It may be imagined it would have been resisted by the true believers in the mantra of small government, as spelled out by one of the most successful finance secretaries, John Cowperthwaite, an idol of free-market advocates who loved the way he talked about government “positive non-interventionism”. 

However, under his watch in the 1960s, Hong Kong embarked on a massive expansion of its public housing programme with no hint of big business opposition. This was because the tycoons understood that they could not simultaneously keep wages down while rents rose to a level that would increase pressure for more pay. 

The programme’s origins are to be found in a genuine response to human need in the wake of the infamous 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire that burned down a large area of squatter huts with tragic loss of life. 

The stakes in housing policy today may be less stark but no one seriously doubts the current unsatisfactory state of affairs. 

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What’s needed is decisive action, which inevitably will require upsetting powerful vested interests. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration, like its predecessors, simply cannot bring itself to do this so it will extemporise, insert some sticking plaster here and there but, as for decisive action …  

A start could be made with a dramatic gesture that would not of itself solve the problem but could provide a powerful statement of intent. This would involve having the guts to say that the party is over for the 2,600 well-healed members of the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling who last year paid a staggeringly modest annual rent of HK$2.5 million for 170 hectares of government land that could well be used for housing.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster